A small theater company has set up a living room in a tiny downtown second floor space to tackle the somersaulting polemics of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. Filled with passion, creativity, lots of faith, and uncannily deliberate direction by Angela Pirko, the Nu Sass produced piece works on all kinds of levels, although it is admittedly an arduous haul. It’s Kushner. It’s long. The folding chairs, though padded, are still folding chairs– for three hours. But at the same time, it’s Kushner, who is worth it.Even the gratuitous, over the top, preachy sections are gripping and topical. Plus, sitting around the periphery of the “bright room” performance space brings you into the intimacy of the deliberations. You’re a silent observer, positioned right there in the salon, bearing witnesses to the effect of the unfolding events of the escalation of the Third Reich on friends and comrades in an apartment in 1932 Berlin.
Hannah Sweet, the crisp and efficient narrator, welcomes us to the show and watches the projections with us, showing the early horror of AIDS in America, the shriveled wasted gaunt bodies, the open sores that won’t heal, the suffering, interspersed with robust pictures of Reagan, who refused to acknowledge the disease for years. The pictures subtly shift to the Jews in the camps, emaciated to death-like skeletons, then to skeletons themselves, mounds of them in killing fields of horror. Then dark silence before the characters march in loudly, in lock step like KGB soldiers, carrying candles, take their places and begin a lively raucous party in Agnes’ beloved apartment.
From the onset, the friendship within the group is rock-solid, their trust and affections for each other is palpable, and their responsible day-to-day lives are honest and real. Karen Lange as Agnes is solid and assured. She basks in the love and appreciation of her beloved comrades, has patience with her brooding lover, and deals with the brewing chaos just outside her window. Sometimes the impending doom seeps into her unit by way of the window, where a ghostly woman played by Marta Kotzian periodically enters speaking in coded lyrical language about ghastly conditions. Agnes resists succumbing to the madness and holds on tight to her own crumbling version of a normal reality as long as she can.
Aubri O’Connor portrays a fellow comrade with strength and integrity, while Amber Gibson as friend Paulinka is a breathtaking firestorm of crackling energy. Wearing a tailored printed smart suit with tiered ruffles along the jacket bottom, Paulinka has the tiniest waist ever and long Angie Jolie dancer’s legs that should be insured. Whether she’s plopped on the divan for girl-talk about her latest acting assignment or agitated about the political turmoil that is affecting casting, she’s irresistible to watch. Her take on the escalating events centers totally on her dwindling theatrical choices—the crumbling state of affairs is also reflected in her costuming which goes from flashy to monotone drab as the play progresses.
The male characters share news from the front with discouraging impact on their work and livelihood. Keegan Cassady brings a somber reflective angst to the role of Agnes’ lover Vealtninc Husz. Having lost sight in one eye in an earlier Hungarian skirmish, he wears an eye patch a constant reminder of the high stakes and sacrifice at hand. The script shows the slow steady rise to power of the most despicable forces the planet as seen through the eyes of liberal communists who seem caught off guard and unprepared for the extent of impending degradation. The Reich pounds away at their routines, righteous causes and artistic freedom, first eroding opportunities, then slowly taking away travel options, until before you know it, mundane privileges disappear, people are being inexplicably detained and questioned, and entire neighborhoods are evacuated. Kushner’s script shows the steady decline in living conditions, the encroaching despair, and the rising tide of hopelessness in dialogues about whittling away honor and moral decay.
A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY
March 12 – April 5
Nu Sass Productions at
Caos on F
923 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
3 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
The narrator interjects in several sequences as an outsider, more of a contemporary to the 1980’s scourge of Reagonomics, and even provides some somber connections between Hitler’s name and Reagan’s and numerical sequences of Satan, yes, the Devil himself- he’s in here, too, portrayed by an eerily effective John Stange.
The set design depicts a large window prominently in the corner, backlit with mild blue hue. Lighting is also a key feature when the devil makes his entrance, with dark circled eyes in an ill-fitting black suit. Sound is its own character with sinister somber effects as the world slowly descends to increasing tolerance for systemic annihilation of outcasts, including Jews.
The play was first presented in 1985 as a workshop, in the heat of the ravaging AIDS epidemic, directed by Kushner himself, then opened in California in 1991. It’s bounced around a bit but not performed often due to its hard edge and tough production values –ghostly, otherworldly lighting, 10 characters, devastating premise of the rise of Hitler, with all the projections depicting him, including a scene with him as a rod puppet. It’s a tough sell.
Still, Nu Sass has thrown down the gauntlet and embraced this challenging thought-provoking piece as a premiere full-length production with purposeful direction and stellar casting that rises to the levels of intensity required. In his own masterful way, Kushner shows how mantras calling for truth, courage and moral conviction demand more than lip-service, whether dealing with the Nazis or a world epidemic. Real world conditions change before our eyes, and unlike fading reels of film, happen to real people. The issues presented in A Bright Room Called Day, boldly presented in the intimate space, are messages shot straight in our hearts, daring us to care enough to make a difference when it’s our turn to take a stand.
A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner . Directed by Angela Kay Pirko . Featuring Karen Lange,
Keegan Cassady, Amber Gibson, Erik Harrison, Aubri O’Connor, Amal Saade, Charlene V. Smith, Hannah Sweet, Marta Kotzian and John Stange . Set: Betsy Haibel . Lights: Colin Dieck . Sound: Aaron Febsterheim . Costumes: Vashti Joseph . Props: Becky Mezzanotte . Dramaturg: Karin Rosnizeck . Stage Manager: Stephanie Kara Jewell Jordan . Produced by Nu Sass Productions . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.