Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Who hasn’t had an occasional bout of insomnia, hint of paranoia, or fear of things that go bump in the night? Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Velvet Sky explores all of these psychological elements in the context of an American family with serious and strange issues. From the first magical moments of a graceful, flying pterodactyl that pulls away the opening curtain, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. The masterful set, lights and sound designs all work wonders, ushering us into the mind and world of a woman who hasn’t slept in 13 years. Bethany’s position in the opening scene sets the wary and jittery tone of the entire 90-minute piece before a word is spoken. She sits nervously with hallowed eyes and enters into a dialog with her teenage son Andrew about life’s dangers. Sure, the premise sounds typical enough, but the pristine white set is itself a menacing character with its low ceiling, inward sloping walls and black jagged schism down the middle. No, this isn’t your typical front room or mother-son chat. Dad’s entrance and subsequent bantering with his wife about her health and well-being, again, look typical on the surface but the subsequent events lead us on a psychological chase for safety and sanity.
Velvet Sky examines the fears of the night—its utter velvety darkness, creeping tree branches, even the Sand/boogey man. How much of Bethany’s fears are real and what parts are vivid imaginings, the effects of combining too little sleep with too much coffee? We can only watch and wonder as we follow the family’s adventures. With Roberto’s steady script and fearless direction by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, we find ourselves looking beneath surfaces, peering behind closed doors, sitting next to unsavory characters, and escaping down dark city streets, to the last place you’d want your teenage son to venture off alone and unprotected—the men’s urinal at the New York City Port Authority Bus terminal.
Jeanine Serralles plays the unnerved Mary to perfection, roaming the streets oblivious to the fact she’s wearing pajamas and carrying only $12 to her name. Her darting movements relay urgency, despair and fatigue mixed with a loosening grip on reality as she relentlessly seeks her son. Will Gartshore brings a down-to-earth likeability to the father character. What’s not to like about a guy who has tolerated the challenges of a non-sleeping wife all those years? Or is he really the trustworthy father that he portrays? The leads are supported by strong actors offering assistance to Andrew and his parents in their quests. Michael Russotto exudes weary warmth to his zany characters; Dawn Ursula has a comic turn when she attempts to help with hopes of finding romance, while Rick Foucheux earns his reputation as one of our finest actors by seamlessly portraying a trusted helper and a scary Sandman, at one point simultaneously.
What was at first considered the scariest place at the beginning of this coming of age story pales by the end. Roberto’s surreal comedy makes us question what’s real or imagined behind the curtains of our own lives. And then, there are the questions: Why hasn’t Bethany slept in 13 years, and will she ever? Are we seeing with clarity and present reality in making our own life choices? Or are we trustingly following our own scary Sandman heading towards a nightmare? To sleep, perchance to dream—ah there’s the rub. If nothing else, Velvet Sky will bring a renewed appreciation for a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.