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Theater Review (Milwaukee): The Night Is A Child at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater

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We all deal with tragedy in our own ways. Some of us are withdrawn and silent. Some of us rage and become aggressive. Others display no outward signs, while falling apart inside. Others choose their particular self-medication, whether it’s drink or drugs. And still others sink themselves into a normally joyous pastime, to overcome the grief. In this production you’ll see all of these.

Initially, you don’t realize it’s the story of an emotional disintegration fraught with fragile psyches and a shared tragedy, two tragedies to be precise. One comes in shortly after the beginning of the play, and arises several times throughout, sometimes prominently, sometimes subtly; the other we don’t learn of until shortly before the end of this two-hour production. If you read the program before the play begins, you’ll learn about the first tragedy, but not the second.

I wouldn’t have gone to the play at all if it hadn’t been recommended by somebody I know who works at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, and who knew I’d enjoy the music. Now that I’ve seen The Night Is A Child’s premiere performance, I wouldn’t have missed it. You’re drawn in almost immediately, relishing in the lead character, Harriet, living her lifelong dream of visiting Rio de Janeiro (in English, the River of January), in Brazil. On Harriet's first day on the beach at Ipanema in Rio, a Brazilian named Bia befriends her. As the women are talking, two Brazilian men practicing Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion, pass by, and Harriet’s dead son appears to her for a very short time. Later in the play, when the two men reappear, Harriet again sees her dead son, again for a very short time. She develops a fixation on attending an authentic Candomblé ceremony in order to see her son yet again, so that she might speak to him longer.

The other members of Harriet’s family, including her children and their families, are all grieving and suffering in their own ways. Harriet has “run away from home,” leaving a note so the children won’t worry about her, but not telling them where she’s gone. The first of the two acts deals with them coping with Harriet being missing. It is simultaneously comedic and dramatic. The anal lawyer daughter and the twin of her dead son determine that Harriet’s gone to Rio and chase after her.

The second act addresses the children’s trip, their reunion with Harriet, and its associated drama and emotion. In the final few minutes there is a resolution, acceptance of the death of the twin, and the second dramatic discovery. In the process, coaxed by Bia, Harriet loosens up enough to dance the samba, and to let the dance peel the grief from her.

The mesmerizing samba music of Grammy winner Sergio Mendes and his group, Brasil ’66, occurs periodically throughout the play. The music is filled with both joy and pathos, and provides an evident undercurrent of relief to Harriet and her children.

The cast, a mix of members of the resident acting company and itinerant performers, are well suited to their respective roles, doing an admirable job all around. It includes Elizabeth Norment as Harriet, Lanise Antoine Shelley as Bia, Monette Magrath as Harriet’s daughter Jane, and Tyler Pierce as Harriet's twin sons Brian and Michael. Other cast members include Jonathan Gillard Daly as Jane’s husband Todd; Antonio Edwards Suarez as Joel, the captivating owner of a hotel at Ipanema Beach, who charms Harriet from the beginning; Bruno Irizarry as Henrique, the arrogantly obsequious ladies' man who meets Harriet’s children when they arrive in Rio; and Jonathan Dickson as the bartender who serves Brian his medication of choice.

The interplay between the family's guilt and grief and the joyous, free atmosphere generated by the samba and the national psyche of Brazil in itself makes the play extremely interesting. The stage props are sparse, with dimming lights and quick, efficient exchanges of props occurring as needed; sometimes two scenes occur simultaneously on opposite sides of the stage, lights dimming on one side as the action shifts to the other.

The title is the Brazilian version of the English expression, "The night is young." I won’t say anything more about the surprise toward the end so as not to give it away.

A bonus was the Caché and Rumba Calienté Dance Troupe, which performed before and after the performance.

Quadracci is a prominent name in Milwaukee, and this theater is one of two public places that people around the globe have heard of and marveled at. (The Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is more famous.) Harry V. Quadracci was the founder of Quad/Graphics, which, according to Forbes Magazine, is the third largest printer in North America. The Quadraccis are art collectors and benefactors of a number of civic, cultural, and educational endowments in the Milwaukee area.

The Night Is A Child opened last night and runs through April 13, 2008. Tickets may be obtained online.

“Art is the salve that heals our wounds.”
– Anonymous, related by the playwright, Charles Randolph-Wright

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About Lou Novacheck