When “Narrow Daylight” won Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s 2012 nuVoices festival, it seemed leagues ahead of the other three finalists in staged readings: tightly and efficiently constructed, credibly characterized, evoking sympathy without pleading for it.
The fully staged version, now getting its world premiere at Actor’s Theatre and again directed by Peter Smeal, has the same significant virtues and small vices it had last year. This time, though, a more polished rendition helps to bring out the former and conceal the latter.
New York-based playwright Sevan Kaloustian Greene sets his war drama in 2008, a few months after the death of a young Florida soldier in Iraq. Nathan (Josh Price), seen in flashbacks or as a silent spirit in the present, hovers over the Panama City house where his mother, Susan (Allison Lamb Tansor), has become a virtual agoraphobic.
She tolerates visits from Gloria, her impossibly cheerful neighbor (Catherine Smith), and Anne-Marie (Martina Logan), Gloria’s more down-to-Earth daughter. But not until Iraqi teen Lena Al-Zahr (Kelsey Fish) appears, declaring herself to be Nathan’s pregnant widow, does Susan come again to life: first in anger, then in compassion.
Greene, who emigrated to America with his parents during the first Iraq War, strikes a careful balance between the scenes overseas and those in Panama City.
The Iraqi moments, all between Nathan and Lena, show tenderness in the midst of conflict: Even his death comes with a sudden, gentle finality. Scenes in sleepy Panama City mostly show turmoil in the midst of torpor: Lena’s arrival excites Gloria and Anne-Marie but disturbs Susan.
Greene overwrites the neighbors: These Southern Baptists, the mama faithful and the daughter probably lapsed, seem constructed more from cultural types than life. Gloria’s chirpy cheerfulness grates on Susan and us (which is kind of the point), but Smith mitigates our discomfort as best she can by reigning that in.
The writer avoids stereotypes with Nathan, an articulate and funny soldier given quiet energy by Price. Lena seems at first to be a kind of plaster saint, docile and humble, but she eventually smashes that mold, and Fish rises to the occasion with vigorous honesty.
Yet the character who sticks in the mind most remains the one who says the least until the climax. Tansor played Susan well last year – she’s the only actor to reprise a role – but Susan now seems to carry an even greater weight on slumped shoulders. She swims reluctantly upward toward a faint light of hope through an even deeper sea of depression than before, which makes the final moments that much more moving.
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