Barney Norris’ new realist play Nightfall, directed by Laurie Sansom and playing at the Bridge Theatre until May 26, examines the painful stagnation of a family attempting to hold itself together after the father’s death. The play opens with ominous sparks flying from a figure’s drill opening a hole in a giant pipeline that runs diagonally across the stage next to a septic tank. Juxtaposed with the idealised nuclear suburban/rural backyard home space, complete with a grassy lawn, flower pots, a beach chair, and a picnic table donned with beers and hor d’oeuvres, the backdrop of oil splotches and dirt serves as the thematic catalyst of the tensions Nightfall.
“An empathetic look into a family structure that is stuck in cycles of unhealthy coping mechanisms”
Claire Skinner plays Jenny, the middle-aged mother of two young adults named Lou and Ryan, who returns home to realize her son and his friend Pete (the masked driller) are concocting a plan to steal small amounts of the oil from the pressurized pipe in order to pay off the debt left after death of Ryan’s father. It becomes apparent that Pete and Lou, portrayed by Ukweli Roach and Ophelia Lovibond, previously dated before Pete was incarcerated for a year, rendering him absent for the funeral and much of the family’s mourning period. The play makes ample use of contemporary vocabulary such as “hashtag” and “Airbnb” and other pop culture references to situate the audience in 2017 and revolves around two main crises: that of Ryan and Lou, who feel suffocated living at home, calcifying in the family’s collective grief without the ability to move on, and Jenny’s desire to maintain the perception of the life she once knew, which begins to destroy her relationship with her children. Jenny’s hostility towards Pete, who she sees as an invader or virus in her desired traditional family structure, and her attachment to the concept of family loyalty which Lou and Ryan challenge, leads her to threaten to reveal the oil company theft in order to stop her daughter from moving away. However, the threat to turn Pete in to the police actually seems strangely underdeveloped in the production as a significant part of the play’s narrative that had the potential to establish significant action. The play ends soon after in a clichéd resolution in which Jenny and Ryan gaze at the North Star and imagine a future beyond grief, and a home that exists in family bonds, rather than in buildings, landscapes, and jobs and other human constructions that are inherently transient.
The play mourns the destruction of dreams and ambition in submission to the pressures of traditional working life, and offers an empathetic look into a family structure that is stuck in cycles of unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with unimaginable loss. Though it often seems to lack verbal nuance and depth, as each family member’s baggage unfolds in sudden and ineffective spurts of dialogue that attempt to thicken dramatic tension, Nightfall does succeed in the interesting development of Jenny’s trauma and grief, submerged under her manipulative attempts to force her life to feel “normal” again, and to maintain an artificial version of her flawed husband’s legacy that she fears will dissolve into oblivion. The new flexible Bridge Theatre, which hosts seats on three sides of the theatre and a stage that extends into the center of the audience, makes for an intimate and tender experience that makes the audience close witnesses to the shifting relationships between four characters who all struggle to heal from wounds of interpersonal betrayal and heartbreak.
Image: Bridge Theatre