Blueprint Theatre Group
at the Chicago Actors Project
You know how you feel when you see a play that's, well, interesting, but doesn't particularly move you? That's how I feel about Nightlight. That's not an unusual critical response in my experience, by any means, but the reasons for it are sometimes novel and often complex. In this case, I think the major reason is that Nightlight is an unfinished play. It's an idea that hasn't quite found its place on the stage.
Basically, Nightlight is the elliptical story of Eddie and Louie, two bums who come from nowhere and are definitely headed nowhere. They're not like the bums you see on the street. They may dress the same, but they don't drink, stink, or talk to invisible people. Indeed, they're unnaturally coherent. They speak the clear, occasionally poetic language that playwright Keith Huff has made them speak. And although they talk a good deal about scrounging jobs, money, or free lunches, their immediate needs aren't especially material. Their major problems are fear and loneliness. Their quest is spiritual. They seek the night-light, the light in the darkness, the hope, the promise of morning, the assurance that they're not alone.
Yes, it's an interesting idea, and the night-light is a wonderful metaphor for existential dread, or whatever you care to call it. But it's not a play. Not yet. You need characters, and a story to put them in, and we don't quite have that.
Louie and Eddie are the rough drafts of characters. Eddie is tall and extremely nervous, even suicidal. He has that slim but visionary grasp on reality caused by a bad acid trip. Louie is Eddie's caretaker. Louie is short, stocky, and in every way more down-to-earth than Eddie. Louie is the moralist and the keeper of the faith that everything will turn out all right. Together, Louie and Eddie are perfectly complementary, even symbiotic. So much so that it's hard to picture them as anything but a dialogue machine. And, in spite of the considerable efforts of Thomas Carroll (as Eddie) and Ralph Flores (as Louie), this pair of bums never emerge as two individual characters.
There's a dramatic inertia to about half of the scenes in Nightlight, the half that features both Eddie and Louie. Perhaps it's because they're such a playwright's dialectic, a sort of Abbott and Costello of The Lower Depths. Yet another contributing factor is the stasis field that they create when they're together. They maintain. They get by, but they also cancel each other out.
So the more interesting scenes, when the play takes on some weight, occur when Eddie and Louie encounter other characters on their own. Eddie, for instance, meets a hooker--named Zero, no less. Like Eddie, she's one of those people that you don't see on the street, because she exists only as a glimmer in the playwright's eye. Anyway, the whole screwed-up relationship between Eddie and Zero is one of unsatisfactory transactions. She puts out, but he can't pay her. He offers her chili, but she prefers to eat out. She tries to tell him a joke, and he's eager to get it, but doesn't. And, most significantly, she wants a night-light, but he can't scrape up the two bucks to buy one. What's so poignantly frustrating about Eddie and Zero is that they want to connect, and try to connect, but it just doesn't work out.
Another fine scene is the meeting between Louie and his sister-in-law, Claire. Louie's brother won't even come to the back door to talk to him anymore, but Claire will, even though she can't let him inside, and it's painful for her. Once again, the play comes alive, and Karen Pratt is great as Claire. She takes a small role with small lines like "It's late, Lou," and provides the play's only (and much needed) suggestion of the irrevocable gulf between Louie and the life, the family, he left behind. In that one line you can see Claire harden her heart against the hopelessness of Louie's situation, a hopelessness that, if Louie admitted it to himself, would be the end of him. Good line--"It's late, Lou"--the classic blow-off.
But scenes, even great scenes, don't make a story. A lot of scenes will create at least a picture, but we don't even have enough scenes here to create a complete picture. We never find out why Eddie and Louie became bums in the first place. At one point, Claire tells Louie, "You could work," and Louie replies, "I tried work. There's no point to it." Sure, that's good for a laugh, but it begs the question of responsibility. What's more, it makes it seem like Louie chose to be a bum, and if so, then who gives a damn what happens to him? It's what he asked for. So, without any knowledge of the whys and wherefores of these characters' suffering, their suffering has no meaning, and an audience is hard-pressed to pity them.
What is far more accessible is the image of the night-light. This image, or metaphor, is way beyond the blueprint stage. It has a mythic and poetic quality that only requires a play substantial enough to give it shape. Yet Nightlight, the play, only takes us halfway there. Consider the magnitude of this metaphor. It's beautiful and buoyant upon first impression, which might give the impression that it's too sappy to sustain a play any deeper than Butterflies Are Free. But somehow this night-light gathers as many shadows as it dispels. Is it, after all, only the source of a false sense of security? For the night-light to work, do you have to remain naive and examine neither your fears nor your hopes too closely? These implications are right there, loitering in the vicinity, but Huff's play falls dramatically short of bringing them home.