nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
June 2, 2009
Aphasia is a neurological disorder—usually brought on by a stroke or accident—which impairs a person's ability to comprehend and use language. While the victim's intelligence is unaffected, they lose most of their ability to translate thoughts into words. In Susan Yankowitz's drama Night Sky, an ambitious astronomy professor whose life revolves around big ideas is suddenly unable to articulate even her simplest thoughts. It's a thought-provoking and accessible play with some very moving moments, though the seams are still showing between its many lofty themes.
As Anna, the good-hearted but short-sighted academic at the story's center, Jordan Baker turns in an astounding performance, capturing all the frustration and horror of being trapped in a wordless prison when your life used to revolve around hearing yourself talk. Her language skills evolve believably over two hours from incomprehensible to competent, and you're rooting enthusiastically for her every minute. It's also helpful that Yankowitz has given her a very rich character, not just a handicapped one. She keeps Anna self-absorbed and stubborn well into the throes of her illness, avoiding cheap sympathy and making her journey all the more identifiable.
The other characters—and the whole play for that matter—end up feeling somewhat in service of this singularly juicy role. Anna's younger boyfriend Daniel, appealingly played by Jim Stanek, does come off as a bit of a device, serving as the emotional yin to Anna's intellectual yang. Teenage daughter Jen, while not one-dimensionally angsty, is drawn a little too broadly to be fully believable. Yankowitz overcompensates a bit for the clunkiness in her naturalism with a series of elegant monologues about man and the cosmos. It's all thought-provoking and pleasant to take in, but doesn't quite resonate as the metaphor for the human mind that it intends to be.
Night Sky was first commissioned and directed in the early '90s by theatrical legend Joe Chaikin, himself a victim of aphasia. One can imagine how magical his production was, though this is no slight to director Daniella Topol, who steers this remount along with grace and heart. It's likely that her dramaturgical skills have been invaluable in its evolution as well, since the play is still being revised to this day. Those revisions are still necessary, in my opinion, but it's already a good play...and it might even grow up to be an important one. As it stands, it's a heartfelt and enjoyable night at the theatre, and an outstanding showcase for one terrific actress.