nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
November 13, 2008
There is a premium put on the virtue of honesty in human nature. Adage is heaped upon adage to extol the virtues of a life led without subterfuge, setting the ideal to tower over others. The theatre has long disputed this philosophy—plays like John Osborne's Look Back In Anger illustrate the damage a person can wreak on their fellow man by adhering solely to honesty and nothing else. In Thomas Bradshaw's aptly titled Dawn, we are confronted with this dilemma: If you live your life in the dark, will you like what you see when you let a little light in?
Dawn is the story of Hampton, an aging alcoholic with a young trophy wife. His is a life of routine. Wake up, drink, go to work, drink, come home, drink until passed out, lather, rinse, and repeat. The opening five minutes of the piece are dedicated to illustrating the lengths Hampton will go to in order to remain pickled. After several abortive attempts at sobriety, Hampton's wife Susan has to rush him to the hospital where we discover that he has corroded his liver and is now faced with an ultimatum—quit drinking or die.
Enter Steven, Hampton's estranged son, who is a recovering alcoholic himself. He offers to help his father achieve sobriety by sponsoring him in AA. Hampton struggles at first, but soon he's two months sober and doing his best to make amends for the emotional damage he's inflicted on his family. When he goes to his daughter Laura's home, things take a turn for the worse, and we begin to see the damage reaches much farther than Hampton could have suspected. I won't reveal any further plot points, but suffice it to say, when the other shoe drops, it drops like a boulder on a china plate.
This is something of a departure for Bradshaw as a writer. We have all the hallmarks of his style—the quasi banal dialogue, explicit sexuality, deliberate repetition of dialogue by different characters, characters in deep denial—but he's either doing something differently here, or doing much more effectively. His work to this point has focused primarily on racial issues, but that is not the case with Dawn. More reminiscent of Days of Wine and Roses than Cleansed, this may arguably be Bradshaw's best play. There is a level of nuance here that is not present in his earlier work (or if it was, it was to a much lesser degree). It's all about balance here; there is still plenty of shock value in this play, but it is tempered by the reality of the situation. Not to belabor the point, but it is honesty that drives this piece. There is a point in the story where every character is expressing what he or she sees as the truth without reservation, and the result is terrifying. Bradshaw has eschewed any sense of fantasy and makes his message very clear: This could happen to you.
A large part of this is due to Jim Simpson's expert direction. Simpson has found an almost perfect balance between the humor and horror inherent in the script and as such our attention never wavers. Simpson and his production staff wisely get out of the way and let the actors and the playwright do most of the heavy lifting. I'm not sure if it was lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's or Simpson's idea to include an LED sign over the stage to denote the scene changes, but it is a stroke of genius; the sign becomes a kind of narrator for the piece, and I found myself awaiting sometimes eagerly, other times with dread, what it had to say next.
Simpson has assembled a capable ensemble, and the work they've put in is evident from the moment the lights come up. Gerry Bamman takes the lead as Hampton and I can say without equivocation that his performance is stunning. The show rests largely and his shoulders and he proves he is more than up to the task. His brutal honesty drives the show and buoys it in its slower moments. Drew Hildebrand as Steven and Jenny Seastone Stern as his niece Crissy both deserve mention; their powerful turns leave the audience with some very disturbing questions about love and ethics.
I used the word "confronted" in the opening paragraph very specifically. All of Bradshaw's work is confrontational; he excels at putting the absolute worst examples of humanity in front of us in order to make us understand that perversion, malice, intolerance—all the things we want to discard as evil or vile—are part of humanity. There is no way to divorce ourselves from these faults save confronting them. It's a painful process through which (ideally) we should come out with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being. Dawn is a piece that demands to be seen for that very reason. It will be a sad statement about the NYC theatergoing public if there is one empty seat in the house for the rest of this show's run.