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I'm not sure I can express the full range of my feelings about Nick Stafford's Luminosity without taxing your indulgence on a matter of personal preoccupation. The fact is, this magnificent play, now receiving its American premiere at PlayMakers Repertory Company through May 2 at the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. Luminosity touches on matters of human congress of primary importance in my own stage work.
Every writer develops a specific theme — usually without premeditation — to which he or she returns, perhaps obsessively. In my own case as a playwright, the past and its bearing on the present have been the touchstone. Then, too, there is the matter of style. I find that I cannot write a one-set, two-act, naturalistic play. I've nothing against the form, but as a writer I'm drawn to theatricality: scenes that play out simultaneously, dialogue in one area (or era) that bounces off another, staging that is unbroken by conventional scene endings, the juxtaposition of words and imagery.
I won't belabor the point any further, except to say that what Nick Stafford has achieved with Luminosity — and, by extension, PRC artistic director David Hammond, who has staged it with breathtaking aplomb — is, to my mind, something approaching a consummation of everything I love and to which, as a writer of plays, I aspire. Total theater, for lack of a more eloquent phrase, and without question the production of this theatrical season.
The play, an unalloyed miracle of intelligent stagecraft, concerns three generations of a wealthy family in the West Midlands of England and the unintended effects of its past on its present. The adopted daughter of the current Mercers, Debra (Charity Henson) is haunted by her uncertainties concerning the family's official history. As Debra confronts her mother Margaret (Tandy Cronyn) and brother Robert (Chandler Williams) in the clan's physic garden, the enigmas of the Family Mercer are revealed to us in a prismatic fashion, the past answering as the present challenges.
In the same spot 200 years prior, we see how the Mercer patriarch John Gardner (Ray Dooley) began his fortune while in the South Africa of 1799 we witness the truth behind the mystery of Margaret's grandmother Victoria (Melissa Hickey). In both settings, race becomes a powerful force whose reverberations are felt, if not entirely understood, in the present — and in neither with archness or didacticism. The most urgent questions are posed concerning murder, duplicity, economic barbarism, bigotry, racial exploitation in both the abstract and the concrete, empathy, redemption — even the legitimacy of art — and the ways in which we must accept even the distant past as a means of connecting with and, finally, transcending it.
Revealing even a scintilla more would spoil your immersion into the world Stafford, Hammond, and Co. have so — well, luminously — created. Quotation too runs the risk of diminishment; but when a playwright has so rich a gift for expression at his command, one worth taking. First, wit, as when the much-enslaved Saul Mercer (Earl Baker, Jr.) says of himself, with ironic good humor, "I was a profitable business." Second, poetry: John Gardner, who feels certain his employer will reward his labors in his will, observes, "You can't eat hope. But it can sustain you." Third, incisiveness: When Debra's brother accuses her of the dread "political correctness," she quite rightly ripostes, "You use P.C. as a slur to shut off debate." Fourth, metaphor: When Margaret refers to the "taut, sinewy, root-like memories" she needs to pull up. Fifth, intellectual rigor: In one of his many faux-academic debates with his sister — arguments that contain more than a kernel of serious intent — Robert notes that "All versions of history are partial." Luminosity also contains one of the most effective first act curtains I've ever seen. A playwright whose arsenal contains all of these attacks, and who employs them as naturally as Nick Stafford does, is one to watch. That sort of hope can sustain you through many a dark season of theater.
The company is without blemish. Ray Dooley performs one of his patented marvels, making Gardner both appalling and, somehow, achingly human; the tenderness with which he looks at the bundle containing a victim of smallpox is quietly devastating. Tandy Cronyn gives Margaret splendid texture, although I fail to see how she earns the final bow at curtain call for what, however brilliantly limned, is decidedly a supporting role. Earl Baker, Jr. is ideally cast in a brief but terribly important part, and his expressive bass-baritone is an instrument to cherish. Victoria is, necessarily, cryptic, but Melissa Hickey gives her a beautiful, wounded dignity that is, ultimately, a kind of benediction.
Chandler Williams' Robert is superbly detailed, allowing the character's concealed ambivalence to gradually rise through a veneer of mocking hostility. As James Mercer, whose diamond-cutting duty gives the play much of its plangent metaphorical rue, Bjorn Thorstad embodies both the excitement of a man in love with his craft and the unbearable tension by which tradition erodes the soul of an otherwise decent man. PRC company members Kenneth P. Strong and Jeffrey Blair Cornell give especially vivid performances as, respectively, the Mercers' benefactor and an alarmingly Nixonian Quaker lawyer, more frightening in his own way than the murderer he advises.
The production's most astonishing presence, however, and the one on whom the play's success depends, is the Debra of Charity Henson. I don't know what impresses me more: Henson's total immersion in, and command of, an expansive and difficult role, or the fact that this performance marks the young actor's first professional engagement. In the wrong hands, Debra could well become merely militant and faintly unpleasant, but Henson inhabits the character to such a degree, and with so much empathy, that her frustrations become ours, and we have an equal share in her quest and its ultimate triumph. Chuck Jones used to say that when you put work and love into a project, at its unveiling only the love should show. Charity Henson never lets us see the work.
Bill Clarke's sets and costumes, like the lighting designs by Peter West, are splendidly functional yet beautiful in and of themselves. Clarke has created a brilliantly effective space on which the Mercers play out their passionate contradictions. His main set, the physic garden, is an artfully arranged mixture of peat, straw, effectively aged terraces, flowering plants, and rich brown earth, out of which death emerges and into which transcendence departs. Train station lamps and chandeliers drop from the flies with graceful inevitability, a slatted wooden walkway curves downstage center, and a working pump sustains the Mercer's homestead in both 1799 and 1999. Clarke's costumes are equally apropos, particularly the grimly humorous way in which he swaths a Quaker in muslin during an epidemic. He also provides a pair of stunning ensembles for Victoria; the one she sports in the "blessing" sequence has been dyed using the ombré technique — a strong dye bath that creates a gradation of color. The effect makes the dress appear to be casting shadows as she walks through the set and is a perfect mate to Stafford's use of diamonds as metaphor.
Finally, though, it is to David Hammond that we give the fullest measure of thanks — first for finding the play and second for directing it with consummate style and sensitivity. Every moment of Stafford's script has been prepared for with utmost care, yet there is nothing fussy about a single step or gesture. Hammond's direction has room for everything — a subtly placed glance or an act of shocking violence juxtaposed with the saving of a life in another time and place. He also gives us a riveting coup de theatre in which staging, performance, lighting, and music (by M. Anthony Reimer, whose little tinklings for the diamond scenes is otherwise rather twee) combine to create a moment possible only in the theater and then only when so many extraordinary human elements coalesce.
Triangle audiences may have to search long and hard for another play as deeply rewarding as this one. I know I will. Luminosity is precisely the sort of work our theater needs and so seldom receives. It makes one proud.
Second Opinion: April 13th News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) review by staff writer Orla Swift: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1138389p-7240496c.html; April 14th Front Row Center (Chapel Hill, NC) review by Alan R. Hall: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html; and April 14th Independent Weekly (Durham, NC) review by chief contributor Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Luminosity Tuesday-Saturday, April 13-17 and 20-24 and April 27-May 1, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 18 and 25 and May 2, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (962-7529) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: The April 16th performance will be sign language interpreted and audio described, with Braille and large-print programs. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=14.