Portrait of a Dead Family 

Nightfall blows apart the falsehood that bad things don't happen in good families.

People often use the term "20/20 hindsight" to talk about things that weren't clear when they happened, but which make perfect sense now. In Joanna Murray-Smith's contemporary Nightfall, the characters have seriously blurred vision, and must struggle with the illusions they've created about the past if they hope to get what they want in the future.

Nightfall begins with Ed and Emily Kingsley, a wealthy suburban couple nurturing a terrible sadness. Their daughter Cora ran away, and they've spent fourteen years trying to figure out why, as their own life energy slowly but surely drains away. Into this expensively decorated virtual morgue comes the mysterious, forbidding Kate Saskell, a woman who claims to be a friend of Cora's -- and to hold the key to Ed and Emily ever seeing their daughter again. What follows is an extended vivisection of the Kingsleys, as Saskell tries to get them to understand why Cora ran away. Chipping away at their defenses -- walls built of privilege, dishonesty, fear, and unquestioning devotion -- Saskell lays bare a horror that could spell the end of the Kingsleys' marriage. As she puts it in Murray-Smith's rather overblown prose, "Evil sometimes comes covered in climbing roses."

The current production at Playhouse West is an earnest if stressful outing. Being as it is a very small space, Playhouse West tends to small shows; meanwhile, artistic director Lois Grandi tends to three-person plays with some kind of shocking second-act revelation or confrontation that gets telegraphed early and often. The question in this one is not so much what happened to drive Cora out -- the revelation, when it comes, is not a huge surprise -- but rather, how is Saskell going to worm it out of the Kingsleys? Murray-Smith lets the suspense build slowly. Very slowly.

Nightfall is dreamlike in its basic surreality, manifest on several levels. First, there's an intimation that Saskell is a therapist, but it's doubtful a responsible therapist would act in such fashion. The language of the play seems forced, ranging from poetic ("I'm not talking about ups and downs, Edward, I'm talking about catastrophes of the soul") to late-'80s cloying ("Once it's acknowledged, the healing can begin") with few stops in between. All three characters speak with essentially the same voice, except that Emily is more prone to incomplete sentences than the other two. At least the central event of the play, and the family's reactions to it, are wholly believable.

To its credit, Nightfall goes a long way in blowing open the falsehood that bad things don't happen in good families, or that wealth and "niceness" automatically lead to the formation of happy families. "Cora knew she came from the happiest of unions!" protests Emily, and we see immediately the desperation behind her words, the hollowness. There's also meaty stuff here about the truth, and how it becomes faceted through time and interpretation. Early on, Emily talks about how exhausting she finds the lies one tells to maintain "normalcy," and wonders what would happen if she and Ed cut loose with the truth -- a question that grows more pointed as the play draws to its painful climax.

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