Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Night Sky

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Aphasia is a writer's worst nightmare: to be able to think, to understand, to know exactly what you want to say--and yet have no way to express it . . . it's an awful, debilitating, largely overlooked condition. By featuring it at the center of her latest play, Night Sky, Susan Yankowitz does a great service to the National Aphasia Association by demonstrating, time and time again, that aphasia is "not an impairment of intellect," and an even greater service to Jordan Baker (and vice versa), who plays--with boundless emotion--the central role of Anna, a brilliant and beloved astronomer whose ability to communicate is abruptly paralyzed. However, aphasia still ends up being Yankowitz's worst nightmare; despite her attempts to find a parallel in the dark matter of the sky, she talks her subject to death, latches on to an unoriginal foundation, and struggles with some really hackneyed moments. In other words, Baker's a blinding star, and without her Night Sky is rather barren.

The first sign of the shallow family drama is that as the voices start bubbling around Anna--her operatic boyfriend/second husband Daniel (Jim Stanek), her tattoo-wanting teenager daughter Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter), and her self-centered colleague, Bill (Tuck Milligan)--the audience actually roots for the onset of the aphasia. Daniella Topol's a talented director, but just as Anna is given the Sisyphean task of pairing the sign and signifier together, so too is Topol forced to communicate an idea that's far deeper than the genre writing on display. Her solution--to focus on large, obfuscating slabs of muddied rock as a visual aid--distracts more than it helps, and in any case, it can't eclipse Yankowitz's well-intentioned excesses.

On the whole, these flaws are rather excusable, because the scenes are competent. They're just happen to muddy the show as a whole. For instance, Dan Domingues is a talented character actor, but not one of his characters--including a fellow aphasic patient, vaguely used to parallel Anna--is necessary to the play, let alone defined enough to aid it. Maria-Christina Oliveras doesn't try as hard as Domingues, but why should she? She's just playing a speech therapist, not a compassionate human being. Friendly as Milligan is when giving connect-the-dot lectures to the audience (do you understand how a lesson on Schrodinger's cat is meant to reflect Anna's condition?), it's not until Anna castigates him for not visiting the hospital that his role takes on meaning (albeit still a slight one).

Astronomers don't just use telescopes for their magnifying properties: they use them to help focus. However, while Yankowitz is too spread out to even write plausible scenes back at Anna's home--she and Daniel have the same fight at least four times--Jordan Baker is plenty invested in her role. Because she doesn't have language, she doesn't face the same problems as her co-writers, or even her playwright. She's forced to earn her words with raw emotion--and she does, time and time again. She's the sun of this play, and everything revolves around her.

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