Oscar Wilde said that the aim of art is “to reveal art and conceal the artist.” As I approached The Night Watcher at Studio Theatre, I had to wonder if the one-woman show was exempt from this mandate. This is Charlayne Woodard’s fourth autobiographical solo play—by now, to reveal and relive her actual life is her art.
The Night Watcher is a series of ten vignettes in which Woodard tells stories of her life as a godmother. The play begins with Woodard’s choice not to have children, as she and her husband decline the opportunity to adopt a baby on short notice. However, her life quickly becomes populated with other people’s children. Woodard tells the stories of her godchildren, nieces, and nephews, who call her “Auntie” and depend on her for love and support. A realization forms from her experiences taking care of other people’s children: being a godmother isn’t just about happy outings and presents, nor is it being an extra, lesser parent figure. For Ms. Woodard, “Auntie” is a whole separate role, coming to the rescue in ways a parent cannot.
In terms of craft, Woodard is an actress with tremendous passion and clearness of vision. Her exuberant storytelling transcends the artificiality of the monologue. She relives each experience so vividly that we completely forget we are staring at a lone woman on an empty stage. Woodard never mimes—she transports, taking us to campsites, airports, pet stores, and hair salons with such clarity that the audience doesn’t care if there’s a baby in her arms or a dog at her feet. With one body and one voice, an empty stage with one chair becomes as real as any movie. She is playing every character, faking the set, and narrating the action—but she connects with her stories so viscerally that all of this pretense slips away.
The Night Watcher
Closes November 17, 2013
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
2 hours, 1 intermission
Tickets: $39 – $59
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Taking each scene on its own, The Night Watcher is a moving, emotionally-charged piece of theatre. Taken as a whole, however, the message is a bit muddy. Kids need more than parents—yes. It’s good to be a godmother, mentor, or “auntie”—yes. The more affirmative vignettes become bigger than Woodard and her godchildren, and remind us all of the good we might do for a child in need. But when children need homes and we have homes to give, should the child-free among us stick to their guns and refuse? A scene in which a little girl asks if she can take the place of Woodard’s pampered dog provided a harrowing guilt trip to all the non-parents the rest of the play seemed to affirm.
In The Night Watcher, Charlayne Woodard bravely exposes herself in a series of passionate vignettes. As a deft storyteller with rich experiences, she reveals art and herself. The play almost becomes much more than the story of one woman’s life. But Woodard covers herself back up at the end with an impassioned defense of her own life and choices. The play raises questions that don’t have a simple answer for everyone, but this ending plea undermines its complexity. Here, The Night Watcher falls into a serious trap for autobiography on stage: if play and performer are one in the same, how can we appreciate it as art? The value-charged, combative ending feels like a set-up–in order to applaud Woodard’s art, we are made to applaud her as a person. And as much as we may approve, to applaud her as a person feels like pretending to have resolved the questions of the play. Woodard’s performance is a powerful experience, but even in an autobiography the art is lost when the artist fails to step away.
The Night Watcher . written and performed by Charlayne Woodard . directed by Bart DeLorenzo . Presented by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by J. Robert Williams.