Stage Reviews – "Night Sky" and "Merrily We Roll Along"

Playwright Susan Yankowitz has bravely written a two-act play about loss of speech. The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble has even more bravely taken it on, offering it up in a visually exquisite production and casting a miracle in its leading role.

“Night Sky” follows an astronomer, at the height of her career, who suffers a head injury resulting in aphasia — a loss of power of speech.

As the play begins, Anna (Kimberly King) is lecturing (simply enough for the nonscientist to understand) on matters celestial. “What we see represents 10 percent and possibly 1 percent of what exists,” she tells us.

At home, Anna relentlessly pushes her struggling-singer boyfriend Daniel (Robert Lee Jacobs in a multifaceted portrayal), nagging him to rehearse, then scolding him to be quiet. She also offers a less-than-motherly shoulder to her daughter, Jennifer (Kimberly Rose Wolter).

The metaphors fly. Daniel tells Anna she has stars in her eyes, her head in the stars. Anna’s daughter, Jennifer, is studying French — the future tense — and doesn’t know it. “Who does?” Anna asks, also telling Jennifer the world does not revolve around her, despite Copernicus. Daniel gives Anna a necklace — a river of stars, also a metaphor that later reappears.

Anna and Daniel fight, she runs out and is hit by a car. She suffers aphasia, a condition of the brain affecting vocabulary, syntax, and understanding of abstractions such as time and space.

At first, Anna speaks gibberish, but she enjoys the flowers Daniel brings and the opera on his headphones.

Her colleague, Bill (James Gale), meanwhile, lectures his class on the theoretical explosion of the universe — and life began again.

Anna struggles to relearn the difference between yes and no. Words are scattered over her brain the way stars are scattered in the sky, we are told, the way light is trapped inside a black hole.

Daniel doesn’t understand her at first, then becomes her interpreter, then her spokesman. As they grapple with the changing balance in their relationship, he tells her they are puppet and puppeteer. But which is which?

The metaphors hang heavily over the first third of the play, but happily the style turns away from pretentious. By the play’s end, the neatly crafted human relationships are its more affecting element.

Directed by Hope Alexander, the play seems seamless and timeless. King squeezes more power and interest out of Anna’s struggling speech than many can from the wordiest characters.

Jeanette Schwaba Vigne is sympathetic but firm as the speech therapist, then comical as a salesperson or well-meaning friend. Steven Amato plays an aphasic patient, journalist and young suitor with equal facility.

With scenic design by Lawrence Miller, Anna’s home is round like the sky, and “space-shaped” screens reflect urban and celestial life, in conjunction with imaginative lighting by Kathi O’Donohue. Music and sound by Max Kimberg parallel Anna’s struggles and help propel the story.

“Night Sky” plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., matinees March 23 and 26 only, through April 9, at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Tel. 477.2055.

The surprisingly hummable songs, a nifty story-telling device and the knockout cast take the audience for a terrific ride in “Merrily We Roll Along” at West Coast Ensemble. Even the poignancy of the story can’t take away from this triumph of art over life.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, the musical looks with warmth and insight upon our past and the past of three friends, now professionally successful, less so in their personal lives.

The play happily has neither great surprises nor clichd outcomes. It merely shows the passing of life — moving backward in time.

We meet the three best friends, a composer, a lyricist and a writer, at a Bel Air party in 1976, and follow their lives backwards until their meeting, on a New York rooftop, as Sputnik is proclaiming a new era in 1957.

Directed by Jules Aaron, with musical staging by Larry Sousa, and musical direction by Darryl Archibald and Brian Murphy, the wit and wisdom of Sondheim finds its match.

Anthony Paul Meindl and Richard Israel play Franklin and Charlie, the composer and lyricist. Their friendship is mediated by the faithful Mary, whose perpetual heartbreak is played tenderly by Lisa Picotte.

Jan Sheldrick (Gussie), Stephen Einsphar (Joe), Michael Henry (Frank Jr.), Melanie Wingert (Beth), Paul Cady, Valerie Doran, Jennie Fahn, David Kaufman, Kyle Kulish, Jan Powell and Beth Robbins add warmth, style and humor, as well as their delicious voices, to the production.

Costumer Diana Eden has a crafty eye for eras while flattering the actors. Particularly delightful are the women’s early ’60s outfits. We think they cast a chubby Mary (and such a pretty face) until Picotte loses the layers of padding.

Set designer Don Gruber creates a minor miracle. Using sliding, frosted-glass doors, he covers a small stage with endless rooms. The actors manipulate the set with clockwork precision. Lighting by J. Kent Inasy, from psychedelic ’60s to a misty greenhouse, enhances this stylish, entrancing production.

The burning, behind-the-scenes combo of Manlon Moore, Dennis Kaye, John Flitcraft and John Harvey are conducted with humor and precision by pianist Brian Murphy.

“Merrily We Roll Along” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 11, at West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave, Los Angeles. Tel. 323.525.0022.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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