by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
Lee Blessing’s Perilous Night is a peculiar play. There is a sensation of being pushed headlong into a combination of Octavia Butler’s time traveling race critique Kindred & Don Coscarelli‘s poignant absurdist Bubba Ho-Tep (which finds two extended care patients, who believe they are, respectively, JFK and Elvis, fighting a mummy).
The entire production is contained within a room in a mental institution – a room occupied by a woman who believes that she is HRH Elizabeth III returned as a ‘projection’ from a world 250 years in the future. She is interrupted in her cross-stich by another patient fleeing from a night attendant.
The story develops in parallel paths. Harriet (Dana Lee Thompson), the harried patient, tells us about her life and the existent chase first through monologue and then through disjointed conversations with Elizabeth III (Shirley Venard). Elizabeth III describes her life in the future and the changes wrought on the earth in answer to Harriet’s credulous questions.
There are twining themes that sometimes combine evocatively. Race is a dominant exploration; Blessing attempts to disrupt the space of the exploration by providing us with a strange narrative. The menace contained in the situation of the play and the power of the two women is only slowly revealed, culminating in violence with the facility’s attendants Samuel (Ross Destiche) and Carver (Kevin Carnahan).
The escalation of menace is a strength of the play. There is foreboding from the first moments, and director Liz Neerland effectively ensures the steady movement toward the violence of its end. There are periodic glimpses of the actors behind the characters. Samuel and Carver must arrive in media res, their fears and machinations fully manifest. Whereas Thompson and Venard have time to settle into an energetic dynamic. Destiche reveals Samuel to be not as bad as we thought, and Carnahan plays Carver as worse than we could have imagined.
Venard is superb, an embodiment of regal haughtiness and beneficence. Those flashes of the woman before and behind Elizabeth III, and the sanity and calculation of that person are handled fluidly. Thompson is appropriately frenetic, and her Harriet naively relinquishes her agency to the other characters in the fruitless hope of a paradise somewhere else. Self identifying as a historian, Harriet’s revisionist histories are all sweetness and light before her birth, and strife and hatred beginning when she left the womb. She both feels a lack of power and a surfeit of responsibility.
Perilous Night is a Maroushka doll of sinister revelations. There are points that strain the seams of the fourth wall with exposition that doesn’t know where else to be; this puts a burden on the actors to stay in the momentum of a scene while delivering information. The play itself requires notable world building for audience comprehension and the dramatis personae orchestrate that well. The play and the production are ambitious and provide plenty to talk about over wine or coffee afterwards.
Perilous Night written by Lee Blessing. Directed by Liz Neerland. Presented by nimbus, September 14-October 6. Information at http://www.nimbustheatre.com.