Reviewed by David Kashimba
Photo by Charles Jarrett

Walnut Creek’s Playhouse West takes you into the dark recesses of the human mind with its current production of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Nightfall. The drama slowly unravels the lives of Emily and Edward Kingsley (Gretchen Grant and Robert Hamm), an upper middle class couple that have been married for 29 years. The catalyst for this unraveling comes from the intrusion of a stranger played by Janis Bergmann.

The play opens with the Kingsleys playing a three-word game that was a favorite of their only daughter. Cora would say three words and then make up a story about them. As the Kingsleys continue to speak of Cora, first among themselves and then with the stranger, we discover subtle pieces of this family’s life. The playwright lays these out like tiny pieces of a very complex jigsaw puzzle.

We find out that Cora wanted for nothing as she was growing up and that “she responds to the seasons.” But as the couple continues to talk we suddenly discover that Cora ran away from home when she was 16, and after the Kingsleys spent much of their wealth trying to find her, the only message they received was that their daughter didn’t want to be found.

Since much of the beauty and power of this play depends on finding out why she didn’t want to be found, I dare not give any more of the story away. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most powerful dramas now playing in Bay Area theatres. The subtle ability of all three actors to move the action forward, in a way that keeps the audience thinking and questioning to the climactic end, will take your breath away.

“Joanna Murray-Smith describes Nightfall as a ‘memory play,’” says director Lois Grandi. “It suggests that people remember events of the past in such different ways that the truth becomes skewed by their personal interpretation and threshold for pain.”

It’s the subtle unfolding of these “different ways” of remembering the past and the way every line spoken is another piece to the puzzle that makes this drama fascinating to watch. “How can we recognize love if we can’t recognize its absence,” is just one of the almost poetic lines that makes the audience look into their own souls as well as the characters’ souls on stage. But perhaps the greatest message of this play is that, “We must embrace catastrophe… We need to be thrilled by disaster.” The tendency is to run away from catastrophe and never recognize its truth, but only by embracing it can our lives move forward.

For tickets or more information call (925) 942-0300.

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