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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Brazilian Mystery

Theater Reviews

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Makingits world premiere this month at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, Charles Randolph-Wright’s The Night Is a Child is a compelling drama marred by few flaws. Elizabeth Norment stars as Harriet—a mother of three whose husband has passed away. The play is set one year after Harriet’s son Michael walked into a nursery, killing nine people before committing suicide. Unable to endure the ongoing questions about the event, Harriet escapes to Brazil, where she hopes to relax. Her surviving adult children, Brian (TylerPierce) and Jane (Monette Magrath), follow Harriet to Brazil in an effort to bring her back home.

Harriet is drawn into the mystery of Brazil by a series of fascinating characters, her central tour guide being an enchanting woman named Bia (Lanise Antoine Shelley). The design of the production is very sparse. Minimal elements of scenery fall or slide into view, illustrating contrasting moments between characters in Brazil and the U.S. Music and lighting help to add the right mood, but Tracy Doran’s Brazilian costume design does much of the work in transforming the space as bright, flowing colors cascade across the stage. Still, the feel of another place never really takes hold here. This is just as well, as the centralstory comes across every bit as vividly as it needs to in order to hold the production together.

Norment’s portrayal of Harriet is deftly realized. In focusing on a woman not used to being the center of attention, Randolph-Wright places quite a challenge on the actress playing Harriet. In order for the role to work Harriet has to seem like anyone you’d happen to pass on the street. Norment’s affectingly casual humanity brings the ordeal of what she has been forced to go through that much more vivid for everyone in the audience.

The problem here is that Randolph- Wright doesn’t follow through with the human subtlety in every aspect of the script. Bia’s true nature, meant to come as a twist at the end, holds very little surprise and almost no impact here and it’s not for lack of talent and effort on the part of the cast. Better to leave her nature ambiguous with regards to Michael’s crime.

The mystery is more satisfying. The Night Is a Child runs through April 13.