Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong at 59E59 Theaters, directed by Guy Slater and starring Jaye Griffiths, is based on a true story written by Rahila Gupta to memorialize her son Nihal Armstrong. A poetic exploration of the playwright’s relationship with her son from wheel to woe, traversing the valleys, crags and cliffs up to the mountaintop, the play is an astounding and beautiful work. The production relays paradoxical effects. It is emotionally searing, yet numbing. It is cathartic and exhausting. In short, it tries one’s range of feeling and then probes deeper until it strikes raw nerve.
Jaye Griffiths brings Nihal’s mom to life from the moment she utters the first line, “Scheherazade told endless stories to keep herself alive…” then builds precept upon precept of truth and power in a tour de force that shatters the heart and confounds the soul. Griffiths’ reality is so mindful, her empathy so graceful that you swear you are witnessing the events as they occur, though the playing area is threadbare save a very few props that Griffiths expertly handles and endows with extraordinary presence that befits the action.
Because American audiences may not know Griffiths, her anonymity serves as an instrument of the playwright and the director. Her portrayal of Nihal’s mother is every mother who struggles to bring her child through the days and years. And she is even more recognizable as a phenomenal mother because of how Nihal came into the world and how the world challenged him to live in it.
You see, there were birth complications which placed Nihal in an incubator and on dialysis for a time. And Nihal was not like other babies, though he “chuckled, burped, smiled, farted like any sweet baby.” Three months after his birth, after he had been battered with tests while sedated on Valium, doctors confronted the parents and spit out the words “infarction of the lentiform nucleii.” These are the terms the parents had to look up to find out what had happened to their son. Comprehension dawned slowly as only a permanent, lifelong impairment can be understood when it is a firstborn and a boy.
What we know, what we immediately understand through Griffiths’ astonishing solo performance, is the love, the “tying and untying” of their connection, the “bond that has been the meter of their lives from cradle to beyond.” This bond is a love the playwright charts as an unscientific mind charts a star in the heavens, with a poet’s acute sensibility and sense of wonder. Through Griffiths’ portrayal and the director’s guidance, we relive the various events: Nihal’s early years and physical therapy, his difficult primary school mainstreaming. We are struck by the mother’s telepathic comprehension of her son’s intelligence and her forcefulness in the struggle to convince educators of it. And then there is the miraculous home schooling until finally he burgeons in secondary school and is readied to face the dangerous hope of a potential therapy to improve his mobility.
Nihal’s story envisioned through a mother’s fellowship with her son is gripping. Indeed, you believe that Griffiths is Rahila Gupta. Certainly, she knows Rahila Gupta and her love of Nihal with every fiber of her being, breathing her, living her in the small playing space that becomes Gupta’s home, Nihal’s nursery, the hospital infant care unit, the school and other venues.
I am glad that I didn’t miss this Brits Off Broadway production for its impeccable direction, for the play as a lyrical ballad of Nihal’s life, for Griffiths’ amazing portrayal of the mother-son bond. Through the combined and attentive efforts of playwright, actor, director and creative team, I came to know Rahila Gupta, Nihal and the vitality of their transcendent love. Theirs is a love I will not easily forget.
Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong by Rahila Gupta is presented by Nihal Theatre Company in association with Louise Chantal Productions at 59E59 Theaters until April 20.