Review: DON’T WAKE ME: THE BALLAD OF NIHAL ARMSTRONG

dontwakeme

by Rahila Gupta, directed by Guy Slater

It sounds like the setup for a based-on-a-true-story Lifetime Original Movie. The mother of a disabled child triumphs over society’s prejudices and builds a better life for her family. But British import DON’T WAKE ME is anything but a cloying treatment of this difficult topic. Though it does provoke some powerful emotions, this taut, 70-minute monologue takes a refreshingly unsentimental and truthful approach. The narrator, played by Jaye Griffiths, is an imperfect, even at times irresponsible mother. And yet there is an unmistakable heroism in the bond she shares with her extraordinary son and her refusal to give in the marginalizing machinery of the medical and educational systems.

Playwright Rahila Gupta cleverly avoids the presentational framework typical of one person shows. Instead of addressing the audience directly, the narrator speaks to a mounted photo of her son. As she attempts to get the details right, to never let the memory slip away, she paints a vivid picture of Nihal Armstrong and of the relationship they forged through years of struggle and affection. After a difficult birth Nihal is diagnosed with “infarction of the lentiform nuclei”: in other words, cerebral palsy. Luckily, the Bobath Institute is able to help with basic motor skills, and Nihal shows promising signs of development. Though he cannot speak in the conventional sense, he learns to express himself through a process known a facilitated communication. With the aid of a keyboard and a trained facilitator, Nihal can engage with the world verbally. It turns out he has a lot to say. He jokes, curses (Tourette Syndrome becomes another issue), and even writes prize-winning poetry. Special schools are tried, but prove overly programmatic. Mainstreaming, ironically, turns out to be a better option as regular teachers and administrators have fewer preset notions about children with special needs. The other kids take a liking to Nihal, and he begins to thrive. Unfortunately, though, the family’s optimism is short lived. New problems arise as Nihal enters adolescence, and his mother must learn to face the inevitable.

Director Guy Slater keeps the action feeling natural and spontaneous. The mostly bare stage is broken into specific playing areas, creating the different spaces – home, hospital, school, etc.- that define Nihal’s life. The show’s real power, though, derives from Griffiths’ performance. Nimbly navigating the script’s many emotional turns, she paints a compassionate, intelligent portrait of a fallible but ferociously determined woman confronting a fate with which no parent can truly cope. Griffith’s authenticity, wit and courage make the evening, despite its wrenching climax, luminous and life-affirming.

DON’T WAKE ME continues through April 20th at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Between Park and Madison in Manhattan. Tickets (212) 753-5959 () ‎ Website: 59e59.org

Advertisements

Review: THE BARDY BUNCH: THE WAR OF THE FAMILIES PARTRIDGE AND BRADY Written by Stephen Garvey Directed by Jay Stern

bardybunch-thepartridgekidsphoto_katiesettel

Given its premise, this ingenious mashup of vintage TV fluff and Elizabethan drama would seem more a likely candidate for sketch comedy than for a two hour musical. But playwright Stephen Garvey brings more to the party than just the laughter of recognition. The script is surprisingly well-made and the many threads of the plot are skillfully interwoven. Particularly in the explosive second act, the twists keep coming and the travails of the star-crossed characters are both gruesomely comic and, at times, oddly touching. The dramatis personae are taken from the guilty-pleasure cult favorites The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. In this edition, though, canned laughter  and commercial breaks are exchanged for gore, ghosts, skullduggery and madness.

Widowed singer Shirley Partridge (Kristy Cates) attempts to find happiness with her new husband, manager Reuben Kincaid (Thomas Poarch). This arouses the Oedipal ire of her son Danny (Chuck Bradley), who stomps around the stage like a pumpkin-wigged Hamlet. Meanwhile in the House of Brady, matriarch Carol (Lori Hammel), urges her husband Mike (Sean McDermott) to screw his courage to the sticking point. At her prompting, Mike plots to do away with his boss, Mr. Phillips (Mike Timoney), and anyone else who gets the way of his ambition. To further complicate matters, the Brady and Partridge clans progress from a musical rivalry to all-out war. This makes it difficult for Lori Partridge (Christiana Little) and Greg Brady (Zach Trimmer) to act on their mutual attraction. Keith Partridge (Erik Keiser) and Marcia Brady (Cali Elizabeth Moore) also fall in love across enemy lines, and soon the younger siblings are dragged into the fray as well. Bobby and Cindy Brady (Chaz Jackson and Talisa Friedman) and middle child Peter (Matthew Dorsey Moore) cook up their own brand of lethal mischief, while Chris Partridge (Alex Goley / Mitch McCarrell) undergoes an unsettling transformation. As the body count mounts, comic servants Alice (Joan Lunoe) and Sam (Timony) are frequently on hand to leaven the proceedings with bad puns and cheery self-deprecation.

Under Jay Stern’s thoroughgoing direction, the cast adroitly rises to the challenge of finding the emotional core of the characters while remaining true to the stylized acting style of the original series. They bring the same commitment to the show’s bubble gum musical numbers, which, like the characters, are culled from the Brady/Partridge catalogue. Polina Roytman’s costume designs, with their boots, vests and ruffled sleeves, help to blend the Shakespearean and 1970’ sitcom worlds.

BARDY is not without some imperfections, as Garvey doesn’t always know what to leave out. References to Watergate and Vietnam feel out of place, belonging neither to Shakespeare nor to the fantasy America depicted on the shows. And as the play edges ever closer to its climax, the pace is sometimes impeded by scenes that take too long to unfold. Still, if this theatrical roller coaster could stand to take its peaks and dips at a faster clip, it’s still a ride well worth taking: recommended not only for fans of the groovy kitsch of yesteryear, but for theater mavens of all types.

For an informative and amusing interview with the playwright, check out this post on Anne E. Johnson’s terrific blog:

http://buskeralley.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/playwright-chat-the-bardy-bunch-bradybunch-partridgefamily-shakespeare-mashup-musical-comedy-offbway/

THE BARDY BUNCH continues through April 13 at the Theater at St. Clements 423 W. 46th Street, New York, NY 10036. (212) 246-7277