Intense, dark and brutally thought-provoking is how C Street's Venus Theatre's newest production, Light of Night, can be described. Although written four years ago, the gripping but yet sensitive and hopeful play by New York playwright Cecilia Copeland reflects events in the news today.
In watching Light of Night, it had the feeling of an episode of the CBS hit series "Criminal Minds." The play has all of the elements. There is a crime committed and the minds of the perpetrator and victim are delved into to the point of being a bit uncomfortable at times. This didn't detract from the production, but added to its intensity. The reality of the subjects explored and how the audience could connect that drama to real-life events, coupled with first-rate acting, set the mood in this production that went from dark and occasionally playful to unexpected and hopeful.
The play involves three very different characters--Stephanie, a perky, baby doll outfitted housewife, her seemingly doting husband Jim, who also has a cruel streak and her sexy, outspoken, seductive and Latino best friend Isabel.
All of the actors have great stage presence and timing and bring the necessary believability to their roles. Elliott Kashner, who plays Jim, and Daven Ralston, as Isabel, are making their debut performance at Venus Theatre. Ralston, a graduate of the Theatre Lab's Honors Acting Conservatory, is new to the area. Kashner has performed at Signature Theatre and other local theaters and has appeared in the hit series House of Cards. Katie Jeffries, who plays the role of Stephanie, was last seen at the theater in Following Sarah and Claudie Hukill.
The play opens on a sparse setting with a miniature bed in the center of the stage, where Stephanie and Isabel are drinking wine, with Stephanie dressed in white, baby doll style pajamas and Isabel in a provocative red velvet bustier, a short silk skirt with a split to her waist and high heels. Isabel exudes sensuality and pulls the audience into her web as she taunts Stephanie in a sultry Latino-accented voice about her boring life.
"Sometimes normal is boring but it's stable," Stephanie said defensively. "Don't you get lonely being single?" she asked Isabel.
"You're lonely and you're married and I think that's worst," Isabel said.
When Jim makes an appearance, dressed like a hippie or cultist, take your pick, Stephanie frantically tells Isabel to hide because Jim doesn't like her and the influence she has on Stephanie, nor does he like to hear Spanish spoken in his home.
"We're in America now," he lashes out at Stephanie at one point.
Without giving away a few of the powerful surprises in the play, the interaction between the three characters allows the audience to delve into the minds of the trio in ways that are titillating and also scary. The characters explores issues of self love, abuse, confidence, relationships, cultural pride and self worth.
"This play presents an extreme situation and playing Isabel, one of the things I thought about a lot was self love," said Ralston. "This continues to be an issue for women and I hope the play has an impact on men and women as they work to having self love."
"This is a bold, brave and frightening play that I was a bit afraid of at first," said Deb Randall, Venus Theatre founder and the play's director. "The play touches on subjects that we as women sometimes shut our brains off from. But it's also a play that celebrates what we have to do to survive. It celebrates the survivor and it doesn't make the audience see women who make it through (trials, tragedies and other bad experiences) as damaged goods."
Copeland said focusing on the survivor in this complicated but easy to follow plot, was one of her main goals.
"I wanted to tell a story about a survivor and not the perpetrator," she said. "A lot of scripts focus on the evil person and get into his mind. It was more important for me to get into the victim's mind and how they find self love. The material is intense, but I was conscious about dealing with the drama without causing anyone in the audience trauma."
Copeland admitted that writing Light of Night was one of the hardest pieces of work she has ever done because some of it hits home. Copeland's father is Jewish, but her grandmother came to this country from Panama. She lived in Des Moines, Iowa, where although educated, she was discriminated against and her husband forbade her from speaking Spanish or passing down her cultural heritage to her children.
"Writing this took going into my soul to deal with this material. It was an exorcism for me," Copeland said. "In the play, the character is white washed and this happened in my life with my grandmother. As a Latino, I feel there's a lot of whitewashing of Latinos and others [who are not white], especially when it comes to our bodies. The Latino woman's body is round and that's not what you see [in the media]."
It may sound as if there are too many issues to gel in one single play, but Copeland tackles them in a smooth, cohesive way that holds the audience's attention.
"I really liked it because it makes me think a lot about the things that have changed on the surface only," said Julie Elliott of New York City, who came to see a friend in the production. "Surprisingly, it didn't make me feel uncomfortable."
Which is what Jeffries wanted to hear and said in terms of her role as Stephanie, "I wanted to humanize my character so others could see if they had some of the same issues in their lives."
Kashner, who said he grew a beard for his role and does a good job in switching from a doting husband who brings Stephanie lots of presents to a controlling, angry tyrant, thinks Laurel has a gem in Light of Night.
"D.C. theater tends to be more conservative, so when you find a director willing to take risks on a play like this, it's great," he said.
Light of Night runs through June 1 at Venus Theatre on C Street in Laurel's Arts District.