A Masterpiece Not to Miss: “What of the Night?”

Do you know the name María Irene Fornés?  You should.

She won nine, count ’em nine, Obie Awards for her playwriting and directing.  (Actually, if you do count ’em, there are 14 — since one recognized two plays, and two others recognized three each.)

And 15 years ago, New York’s Signature Theatre devoted an entire season to Fornés.  One reviewer said, “She has redefined American theatre as profoundly as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller” (Alisa Solomon, in the Village Voice).

Steve Madar, Gina Manziello

Steve Madar, Gina Manziello

The Vagrancy is currently performing one of Fornés’ masterworks, What of the Night?  In fact, they’re staging its West Coast premiere — although it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist 25 years ago.

Ignored a little?  Yes.  And The Vagrancy’s production makes the reasons abundantly clear.

Not because Fornés is obscure, or weak, or dated — but because her storytelling is so painfully clear, so slap-in-the-face honest, you can’t fail to understand and be moved by it.  She also lashes the soulless capitalism strangling our culture, with never a word of preaching but with searing accuracy.  She makes everyone else seem tame.

Fornés is, in a word, too strong for most American theatres.  You’ll never see one of her plays at the Mark Taper.  (Yes, that’s a dare, Michael Ritchie.)

To be fair, many of her plays — including What of the Night? — work best in intimate settings.  At Studio/Stage, director Caitlin Hart has deployed a mere 20 seats into the small space around her actors, who work surrounded by wall panels and projections.  This intimate immersion encourages what Fornés regards as the heart of theatre — not conflict, but people on the stage experiencing life, and people in the audience feeling it.

A Fornés play is made of many short, spare scenes, with actions and dialog starkly pruned.  What of the Night? joins its  dozens of scenes into four short playlets — Nadine, Springtime, Lust and Hunger — that function as four acts.   It opens with a woman singing as she scrubs laundry on a washboard.

In Nadine, the woman struggles to raise her children in the late 1930s.  Lucille is a sickly nursling, Rainbow’s in school, Birdie (a waif Nadine has taken in) helps with housework, and Charlie strips clothes from sleeping drunks to sell to a local grifter named Pete.   Nadine, we discover as her pleadings with Pete fail, trades her body for the family budget.  Charlie and Birdie wed, in a sad imitation of teen romance magazines, then Birdie leaves to seek her fortune.

Springtime takes us into the life Rainbow has found 20 years later — caring for the ailing Greta, her beloved.  When she steals  to pay for Greta’s treatments, the shadowy Ray enters their world.  At first he forces Rainbow to pose for nude photos; then, in hostage syndrome, she comes to view him as “a friend”; finally, he coerces Greta to have sex, destroying the love affair.  Exit Rainbow.

In Lust, Ray — the older son Nadine gave away — enters the amoral corporate world of the 1980s.  An executive swiftly initiates him into pecking-order ethics, then proffers his daughter.  As Ray rises, his loveless union with Helena falls apart; comforted by her maid, Birdie (with whom Ray’s having an affair), she starts gaining a sense of self.  Meanwhile, Ray descends from abusive rages into a terrorized nightmare.

Finally, in Hunger, we reach the present — a street scene, where the homeless Ray waits, with others, outside a shelter.  A demented Charlie is the doorkeeper.  Birdie enters, smartly dressed, with food. Once it’s delivered, though, she can’t leave; “A moment ago you felt you were different,” one of the vagrants says.  An angel enters and pours animal entrails before them, and Ray takes the semi-conscious Birdie into his arms and wails.

It’s hard to convey the intensity with which these brief scenes hit, like body blows.  Or the way the razor-edged dialog, unadorned and matter-of-fact, slips by almost unnoticed.  The cumulative effect is like undergoing a rapid surgery, without anesthetics.

The Vagrancy artists deliver this shattering experience with force and humanity.  Gina Manziello’s beleaguered yet dignified Nadine seizes our empathy, and her singing gives us a tender throughline.  As the hapless Charlie, Marc Pelina embodies adolescent naivete and lets us grieve for his decline.  Alex Marshall-Brown moves Rainbow from childishness to an adult who can be joyful, yet stands firm for love and justice.

In brief roles as Nadine’s friend and as the fallen Ray’s street buddy,  Kathleen Hagerty brings a warm, flat factuality with a sharp wit at its edge.  Joseph Culliton makes Joseph a chilling study in blithe sociopathy; and as Pete, Steve Madar commands the stage with an equal and rougher menace.

Of special note are Elitia Danels, who fills the spaces between Greta’s lines with visible thoughts and ceaseless emotional complexity, and Linn Bjørnland, who grows the “damaged” beauty Helena from an achingly resourceless rich girl into a courageous, slowly emerging person.

What of the Night? is a genuine ensemble piece in which everyone is a protagonist — because, as Fornés rightly sees, we all suffer.

Still, this telling of the story ends up riding on the shoulders of two fine performances.  Thaddeus Shafer’s Ray moves from an ominous shadow to a despicable — if secretly terrified — misogynist, and then to a broken man from whom we can no longer withhold our pity.
Lisa Jai takes Birdie from a chirpy wisp, surely unable to survive, through a series of changes that make us feel for and respect her, and then feel devastated by her final collapse.

Traci LaDue’s evocative period costumes, Madison Huckaby’s exact props, Matt Richter’s lighting, and Matthew Hill’s projections work well together to create the rapid succession of moods and periods.  But the powers that shape this world are Martín Carrillo’s sensitive colloquial sound design, Hill’s striking and original design of the space, and Hart’s deft shaping of the action within it (her gently choreographed scene shifts in Spring are a lesson to all directors).

In a tiny space, The Vagrancy is making a powerful major work by a modern master come fully to life.  It is a moving, difficult show to sit through.  But if you care at all about America and its theatre, you must see it.

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What of the Night?, by María Irene Fornés, directed by Caitlin Hart.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm,
through November 2nd.

Tickets:  <http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/830823>