Friday, April 27, 2007

opening-night review of *Dusk*

by Bryan Harnetiaux
at Spokane Civic's Studio Theatre through May 18

Returning to some of the same territory as his award-winning play *Vesta,* Bryan Harnetiaux — Spokane’s best playwright of the past 25 years — has fashioned a mostly intense and involving 70-minute meditation on death called *Dusk.* It focuses on Gil (Nik Adams), who’s 65, dying and unprepared for it — or, as he describes himself, “No will, no 401k, no God … just a boggy heart.” A social worker arrives to help Gil make some quality-of-care decisions just at the same time that all three of his children choose to descend on the family home. Gil’s anger — at them, at death — drives the plot.
*Dusk* is the first draft of a good play about death and dying, and it’s certainly worth watching for 70 minutes of the life you have left. There’s plenty to admire here: The theme itself, for example, with its insistence that most of us run away from discussions about death without even knowing why. And Harnetiaux’s adeptness at undercutting sentimentality with silliness: Repeatedly, he uses jokes well to defuse intense situations. His technique of characterizing offstage characters so that the five people we do see onstage seem to exist in an actual, rounded world. Stretches of sharp back-and-forth dialogue. His efficiency in recounting something literal — a fishing-trip story, a family tradition — and then revisiting it for a metaphorical payoff.
Some aspects need revising, however. A couple of flashback scenes were unclear both in terms of basic plot and thematic intent. What game were the children playing? What exactly was going on at the railroad tracks? If the idea was to demonstrate that the contentious adults had once been carefree children, it was at least a bit confusing to bring two of the adults before they had ever appeared onstage as their older selves.
One major implausibility is the presence — throughout a dysfunctional family’s extended duking it out over what it literally an issue of life and death — of a woman whom every one of them is meeting for the first time. As Elizabeth, the social worker and nurse practitioner who advises Gil on his end-of-life care options, Brooke Kiener has a mostly thankless task. Clipping off her consonants so precisely that it becomes distracting, Kiener is given great swaths of medical terminology to pronounce and explain. The effect is to make her character seem like a well-meaning robot. Playwright and actor have tried to humanize Elizabeth, giving her a little humorous give-and-take with Gil; and Kiener has a nice maternal, caring quality in her delivery. But Elizabeth still sits at that kitchen table as a distracting plot device nevertheless. By spreading the action over several days instead of a single histrionic night — and by allowing Elizabeth room to leave the family members to argue on their own terms, and alone — the playwright could achieve greater plausibility.
Gil’s three children fall into recognizable types: the doofus, the career man, the responsible one. As the daughter who stayed close to home and took Dad to all his doctor visits, Sara Nicholls has another unforgiving role: It would be easy to let Nan be a nag and nothing more. But there’s an especially good father-daughter confrontation between Adams and Nicholls that brings some powerful emotions to the fore. None of us wants to admit responsibility when it comes to our loved ones and leave-taking.
Director Diana Trotter keeps the action flowing around that weighty kitchen table. There’s a moment near the end, almost predictable, when Gil comes near death again; Trotter groups her troops effectively here, creating a near-death tableau that characterizes everyone onstage without over-sentimentalizing the whole scene. And that father-daughter face-off had good intensity.

… It’s a privilege for Spokane playgoers to be in on the first draft of a play written by a man who’s 25 years older than he was when he started creating material like this for the Civic. (Come to think of it, so are the rest of us.)
When *Dusk* starts to turn into night — when it comes to the point of decision-making, of directly confronting the fact of his own mortality — Gil can be heard to mutter, “No matter what, you’re always surprised.” Part of what he’s getting at is that down deep, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of our own particular non-existence.
Dying is something other people do — until it’s not.

For comments about the anger and exasperation in Nik Adams’ portrayal of Gil — and for more on Harnetiaux’s themes and on the acting of Benjamin Lee and Maxwell Nightser as Gil’s two sons, Fitz and Micah, please pick up a copy of *The Pacific Northwest Inlander* on Thursday, May 3.


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