Who wouldn’t want to escape the winter cold of Massachusetts for the beaches of Rio De Janeiro? Certainly not 50ish widow-housewife-mother-grandmother Harriet Easton, who’s just arrived in the land of sun and samba.  Harriet’s face lights up with joy at the simple fact of being in Brazil, but her smile hides a pain almost too excruciating to live with, the grisly reason for which is revealed pouco a pouco in Charles Randolph-Wright’s magical new play The Night Is A Child, now getting a stunning staging at the Pasadena Playhouse under the nuanced direction of Sheldon Epps.

Our understanding that Harriet’s trip to Rio hides deep dark secrets comes gradually. Back in Brookline, her adult children Jane and Brian have become concerned about their mother’s disappearance, and Jane refuses to wait even the requisite twenty-four hours before involving the police. Meanwhile, in Rio, Harriet has begun to see visions of her third child, Brian-lookalike Michael, images that are awakened every time she chances to cross paths with dancing, chanting practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomblé.  Harriet seems not just to be running away from something but also to be  hoping for some kind of Brazilian healing.  Exactly what Harriet’s reason is for wanting to be healed is not revealed until Act One’s devastating final moments, and will not even be hinted at here.  Suffice it to say that playgoers will have much to discuss and ponder during intermission, and perhaps even more so after the play’s cathartic climactic scenes.

If The Night Is A Child sounds like more than a bit of a downer, it isn’t. The music of Sergio Mendes And Brazil 66 wafting across the stage (courtesy of sound designer Bruno Louchouarn) and the warmth of the Ipanema sun as it bathes Yael Pardess’s set (gorgeously lit by Lap Chi Chu) transports us as if by magic to a place far from Massachusetts (or Southern California for that matter). At the same time, Harriet’s budding friendship with Bia, the vivacious young Brazilian doctor she meets soon after her arrival, begins to fill the Brookline housewife with a sense of joy, hope and promise, as do supporting characters like zestful hotelier Joel and lusty local Henrique.

Harriet is played by the breathtaking JoBeth Williams, who two years ago gave the most memorable performance (among a quartet of brilliant ones) in Jane Anderson’s The Quality Of Life, at the Geffen. In that play, Williams was a mother dealing with the indescribably brutal murder of a teenage daughter. What has sent Harriet Easton to Brazil is every bit as horrific, and once again  Williams proves herself an actress of uncommon gifts and undeniable stage presence.  Perhaps it’s memories of her work in films like Kramer Vs Kramer and The Big Chill that make us feel as if we are being reunited with a cherished longtime friend, or perhaps it’s simply that Williams has the innate ability to touch even the hardest heart.  For whatever reason, casting the film and TV star (and stage vet) in this role was a stroke of genius. She grips us from her first entrance and never lets go.

Harriet’s children are equally well cast.  Like Williams, Playhouse favorite Monette Magrath (as alpha-lawyer daughter Jane) has that indefinable likeability factor that immediately wins an audience to her side, even when playing as tightly-wound a character as she does here. Whatever has propelled Harriet to Brazil has sent Jane hiding beneath a carefully controlled exterior, but at the expense of her family relationships. At one point, Jane is correctly accused of not being able to look Brian or even her two boys in the eyes. Magrath keeps Jane’s pain locked within, yet we sense quite rightly that out of sight does not mean out of mind.  When she finally lets it out, the effect is all the more powerful coming from someone as outwardly “in control” as Jane has seemed to be.

Making an impressive Playhouse debut is Tyler Pierce as both Brian and Michael, roles he played opposite Magrath last year in The Night Is A Child’s world premiere production at Milwaukee Repertory.  Epps’ decision to invite Pierce to recreate the role in Pasadena was an inspired one indeed.  The dynamic young actor’s many scenes opposite Magrath crackle with real sibling chemistry.  Pierce’s Brian is a walking wounded, his pain so near skin level that tears threaten to erupt at any given moment, even as he is drowning them in an alcoholic stupor.  As Michael, Pierce creates a character so imbued with sweetness and love that we understand perfectly why Harriet cannot let go of him.

Then there are the Brazilians, Sybyl Walker as Bia, Maceo Oliver as Joel, and Armando McClain as Henrique. Working with dialect coach Joel Goldes, the trio are absolutely convincing as Cariocas (Rio de Janeiro natives).  It’s not just their accents that are spot-on, however. They are filled with alegria de vivir, that particular brand of joie de vivre that seems to unite all Brazilians regardless of race or ethnic background. Walker is particularly wonderful as Harriet’s guide to Rio and her tutor in Brazilian culture, and the actress’s many scenes opposite Williams have a genuine sparkle to them. Oliver’s transformation from American to Brazilian is absolutely complete as well, yet not all that surprising considering the chameleon-like way he disappeared into an ensemble’s worth of characters in Cuttin’ Up a few seasons back. McClain is an ingratiating, physically demonstrative Henrique, and behavior that would be improper coming from an American somehow comes across as charming from this would-be Brazilian lothario.

There is so much more I wish I could write here about The Night Is A Child, yet to do so would mean revealing the reason for Harriet, Jane, and Brian’s emotional torment. Suffice it to say that Randolph-Wright’s play is as current as tomorrow’s headlines, yet so magical that even its most fantastical conceit becomes somehow believable. 

Sharing design honors in the Pasadena Playhouse’s absolutely gorgeous production is projection designer Jason H. Thompson, whose seamless collaboration with set designer Pardess and lighting designer Chu makes transitions from the chill and snow of a Massachusetts winter to the brilliant warmth of a Brazilian summer almost instantaneous. Whether views of the sparkling Rio de Janeiro ocean, or images of snow falling on a bone-chilling Massachusetts night, or the view from a taxi’s rear window on a careening ride through Rio, Thompson’s projections become almost like another character in Randolph-Wright’s play.  Maggie Morgan’s costumes run the gamut from warm wool winter garb to South American summer beachwear. Doriana Sanchez deserves high marks as well for her sambas and other movimentos brasileiros.

No other theater in Los Angeles so closely approximates what it feels like to see a top-caliber play in a historic Broadway theater in quite the way the Pasadena Playhouse does.  The Night Is A Child is L.A. theater at its finest. You’re unlikely to see a better acted, better staged, better designed production on the Great White Way, and in today’s stay-at-home economy, this is welcome news indeed.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
September 9, 2009
                                                                       Photos: Craig Schwartz

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