To say that Tom Stoppard has a way with concepts and words is like saying birds have a way of flying in the air, or the Beltway has a way of congesting in rush hour. He can be trusted to grasp complex ideas and relay the issues via well crafted characters without sounding (too) polemic.
While Night and Day is packed with enough Stoppard word-play and double-entendres to keep the intellectual juices flowing, it’s the story that packs the punch. Journalists in a war-torn African country strive to be the first to nail a breaking story with little regard for the subsequent impact. Stoppard’s experiences as a young impressionable journalist are reflected in the inclinations of his characters’ ultimate quest for the truth and/or the story—ah, there’s the rub. Vying for one does not automatically equal attaining the other. Stoppard explores what political freedom means in the context of reporting the unfolding events to the world, and questions who gets star billing for bringing the events to light, and at what costs.
The African country “Kambawe” featured in the play is totally made up, pieced together from events that occurred throughout the continent in the turbulent periods of post-colonialism. Thought written in 1978, the issues are so topical they could be torn from today’s headlines– countries torn apart by civil unrest, souls putting their lives on the line to uncover the truth, and journalists craving front page coverage and acclaim. A director’s note in the program even acknowledges the recent deaths of several prize-winning journalists, casualties of getting the story.
Stoppard’s brilliance shines when actors are able to punctuate the words and deliver the ideas like well turned pirouettes. Washington Shakespeare Company production has assembled a stellar case which showcases Stoppard’s craft beautifully and allows the story to dance.
Jim Jorgensen, well known as one of the finest actors in the Metro region, captures the cunning intensity of Dick Wagner, the Australian journalist for the London Globe. Jorgensen is nicely balanced by three other equally effective actors. Daniel Flint’s George Guthrie is the weather beaten, put-upon photojournalist with the perfect mix of cynicism and savvy survival skills.
Balancing these powerhouses is Tyler Herman as the young upstart freelance reporter, Jacob Milne, who knows he just happened to be at the right place at the right time to get the elusive career-launching interview, if only he knew the ultimate price he would end up paying for it.
Abby Wood gets some of Stoppard’s salacious lines, in the role of Ruth Carson, a particularly hot number who is ready to rumble when it suits her.
Patrick Smith plays Geoffrey Carson, a smooth talking mining corporation engineer who knows enough about working the system to run a lucrative business despite the local uprisings and political unrest. While Carson is obviously more tuned in to the company than to his wife’s roving eye, deep down he truly cares, is committed to her safety and well-being, and is a devoted father to their son, young Alastair, played winningly by Sam O’Brien.
Director Kasi Campbell maintains a sure and steady pace while the show courses through the social-political arguments trying to define truth, and even reality, as Ruth wanders into and out of her own unspoken often sensually-based subtexts. When Ruth actually utters a line that she had been bandying around in her head, the audience collectively gasps. Campbell keeps the action flowing through the two dimensions and keeps Wood’s performance at such as balance between sultry and sad that she’s captivating to watch. The production is ably supported by the lighting designer Colin Dieck who has the unsavory task of producing brights and shadows at lightning speed even when the speaker is in mid-thought–no easy task but he makes it look as natural as, well, night and day.
The steady and reliable Chuck Young does what he can with a thankless role of the country’s President, a bombastic, explosive chief, who provides a glimpse of the ever-present dangers lurking just outside the protected and fortified compound.
As part of the well-functioning set by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, a large design-filled circle floats on top of the horizon and can represent either night or day with the right lighting, the magical Dieck at work again. Doors open as exits to back-lit rooms. Word from the clickity rumble of a message could make or break a news story, relay life-threatening conditions, or worse and one room harbors the “tele-type machine” which was as close to “instantaneous” as they had at the time.
The charismatic rhythms and sounds of Cole Porter’s titular song hang in the air throughout this production, wafting in and out on cue, providing a sense of comfort, support, home. For the expatriate reporter on the hunt for the next big scoop, the adrenaline rush is almost palpable. Lucky for us, the excitement of seeking clarity about truth, the role of the press, and the perils of detangling news from information are nicely captured in this production of Night and Day.
Night and Day
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Kasi Campbell
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; with one intermission
- Robert Powers . MD Theatre Guide
- Kate Wingfield . Metro Weekly
- Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper
- Richard Byrne . Balkans vs Bohemia
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post