The Night Watcher
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 1, 2009
Charlayne Woodard's warm one-woman show, The Night Watcher, is a thoughtful, personal, and exuberant essay on reasons to remain childless. This is not obvious at the start of this engaging and polished performance. Nor does it have one of those "aha!" moments midway through when she exclaims, "Not for me." In fact, some audience members—and perhaps Woodard herself—might disagree with me altogether. But, that was the cumulative effect of her stories on me, stories filled with colorful phrases and images and details that clearly exemplify her close relationships with children for whom she is godmother, children of friends whom she has mentored, and her four siblings, whom she helped raise.
Daniel Sullivan directs as if this were an intimate conversation between good friends. Woodard moves around the stage casually and comfortably, and on occasion, as if she were in the privacy of her own living room, she bursts forth with vocals and movement that demonstrate the huge talent she is. The piece is divided into parts (nine or so) identified by Tal Yarden's bold projections on a backdrop. This gives each anecdote an emotional and physical framework, and supports the time and place of the stories without distracting from Woodard's strong performance.
Woodard takes us through her first awareness of babies, her reactions to being named godmother, and her attachment to a multitude of children. Early on, she learns that spiritual guidance and showing love for the child through actions are what is required of a godmother—not material gifts. This suits Woodard, and she accepts the responsibility and shows how she dedicates herself to this. Subtly and with ample humor, she weaves in her satisfaction with her professional life and her marriage to Harris. More than once she is called on to adopt a needy child, and she comes close to accepting. But, she never does. She attributes her clear-sightedness to "aunties," extended family and friends who reached out to her and influenced her choices when she was growing up. One was her Auntie Pauline, who introduced her to New York City, where they shopped, ate lunch at Schraft's, and went to matinees. Another was her mother's best friend, Miss Ruby, who had earned many degrees by the time her mother had had five children. Miss Ruby helped young Woodard with her homework, and taught her that it is not enough to know the answers, but to always ask why. It was in her quiet, elegantly furnished home that Woodard plotted her own future. According to Woodard, this is where she first tasted freedom.
In The Night Watcher, Woodard's anecdotes are lively celebrations of various children—their quirks, attitudes, fears, secrets, traumas, and joys. She compares parenthood to being a warrior, and harbors doubts as to whether she could live up to being a mother. But judgment is Woodard's strong suit, at least in this play; and here, she sets herself up as the keeper of secrets, the reliable older friend, an auntie, a sage. As she says to one nervous teen, who is on the cusp of self-discovery at his first track meet, "We didn't come to see you win, we came to see you run. Run with you heart." She seems to connect with kids at every age and there is more than one poignant story that demonstrates how much they love her. Her advice proves at least two points: that she would be a marvelous parent; and that having no children, she has the time and distance to formulate counsel that often eludes those in the middle of the chaos of child rearing.
The design team supports Woodard throughout. Less is more in the set by Charlie Corcoran and Thomas Lynch. One modest chair on a spare, clean stage keeps the focus on the marvelous storyteller. The beautiful, nuanced lighting by Geoff Korf accents details of Woodard's tales. Obadiah Eaves creates original music and wonderfully subtle sounds that heighten moods.
The Night Watcher is a celebration of the importance of the extended family. Would that more parents put this much thought into the repercussions before propagating and perhaps there would be more peaceful patches on this earth. Nevertheless, there is sadness in Woodard's finale for not giving parenthood a chance. But, it seems that she made the choice out of knowledge, cherishing her sense of self, loving and learning from the children who are integral to her life, and valuing the freedom that she gained as a self-supporting adult. For everyone, there is a road not taken.