Psychiatrists report that anywhere from one-third to one-half of widowed spouses experience bereavement hallucinations, that is, comforting auditory and visual traces of their deceased loved ones. Less phantoms than routine presences, these ghosts reflect the mental residue of years shared with another person. It follows that similar hallucinations may come with the loss of a parent or child, the mind taking small and slow steps toward accepting absence.
Several ghosts haunt Sevan Greene’s Narrow Daylight, which made its world premiere at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte on July 24, but only one took to the stage – a 19-year-old soldier named Nathan, whom we discover is someone’s son, another’s husband, and someone's yet-to-be father.
Winner of Actor’s Theatre’s inaugural nuVoices New Play Festival last summer, Narrow Daylight is a play in two acts. The storyline weaves in and out of the past without hard breaks in dialogue. Nathan (Josh Price), who died on his tour in Iraq, tells his story through these flashbacks. It’s a story that his mother, Susan (Allison Lamb Tansor), didn’t know fully until the day, three weeks after Nathan’s death, that a 19-year-old Iraqi girl by the name of Lena (Kelsey Fish) knocks on her front door. Lena presents herself as Nathan’s widow and mother of his unborn child. With this premise, we begin the story that leads these strangers through grief to a new definition of family.
All of the action is set in Susan’s home in Panama City, Florida, a town so close to lower Alabama that it could be “some inbred sister city,” according to Anne-Marie (Martina Logan), the daughter of Susan’s best friend and neighbor, Gloria (Catherine Smith). Despite the location and promise of a grandchild, Susan shows more hostility than hospitality in receiving Lena. The series of accusations and insults she flings are unsettling, as much for their delivery as their prejudice. That prejudice seems less about race and more about a general sense of otherness by which Susan can define Lena as an interloper, both in her son’s life and in her act of mourning.
The plot includes several twists that complicate the healing process for the women. Guilt, mostly undeserved, plagues Lena and Susan daily. At one point, an exasperated Lena says she wakes up each day trying to figure out which guilt she should feel. When Gloria tries to convince Susan to allow light back into her life, Susan admits that she taped blankets over her bedroom windows after Nathan died, attempting to block out the “narrow paths of daylight” (cue the title) that found their way around closed curtains. This admission, that she preferred constant darkness to facing the sun’s incessant rising and shining, marks Susan’s transition into acceptance. We can imagine that it is hard to watch the world continue without pause or recognition when your own world has been so utterly destroyed.
However, Narrow Daylight is not all dark themes and sorrow. Playwright Sevan Greene repeatedly relies on humor to relieve the tension, and director Peter Smeal, known for his comedic roles as an actor, is just the person to pull laughter out of conflict. Despite the grim circumstances, “there are still ridiculous moments,” says Smeal. “You can laugh, then feel bad that you laughed but understand that it does happen, that this is part of the process [of grieving].”
The relatively young age of 19 years for three out of the five characters must have presented a casting challenge, but Smeal made some fine choices. Tansor, who read Susan’s part for the nuVoices festival last summer, constructs a convincing portrait of a woman beset by depression and anger, though it was difficult to think of her as anything but rancorous by the time we make it to her transformation near the play’s end. Smith conveys the empathy to counter Susan’s acrimony and provides much of the comic relief. Fish, only 18 years old herself, played a credible young Iraqi girl, if lacking in the emotional range expected of a woman who has lost her husband, father, mother, and uncle and been effectively cast out of her community under threat of death, all within the past few months.
Lena’s persistent stoicism becomes a trope by the second act – the long-suffering Middle-Eastern martyr – just as some of Anne-Marie and Gloria’s lines are so thick with Southern shtick that they ring inauthentic. These overdone moments seem to reconfirm some of the very stereotypes and preconceptions that Narrow Daylight sets out to topple. However, the script features a number of fresh and wonderfully visual phrases, many delivered by Susan, from a soul-picking black bird to 25 years reduced to a drawer of odds and ends.
Despite a few wrinkles in its fabric, Narrow Daylight skillfully channels contemporary life through the universal themes of love, loss, reconciliation, and family. New work that pushes boundaries and challenges audiences is crucial to the survival of any art form, and it is to Actor’s Theatre’s credit that they engage audiences in bringing new plays by contemporary playwrights to Charlotte. Here’s to more original work haunting the stage in the theatre’s 25th season.
Narrow Daylight continues through Saturday, August 3. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.