Joanna Murray-Smith, a novelist currently penning a script for Paramount of her 1997 play “Honour” that traveled to Europe and Broadway (where it flopped), returns with another intense, intellectual drama of the middle-classes that examines the ambiguity of truth, subjectivity of memory and the power of denial. In “Nightfall,” Murray-Smith injects some suspense — if not quite surprise — into the familiar drawing room drama genre by steering it into darker territory.
Play has Emily and Edward Kingsley (Margaret Cameron and Ian Scott), a seemingly comfortably couple, awaiting a visit from their estranged daughter, whom they’ve neither seen nor heard from since her mysterious disappearance several years earlier at the age of 16. But the audience never meets Cora, the missing offspring; instead the equally mysterious stranger Kate Saskell (Victoria Longley) arrives, professing to be a friend of Cora’s, wanting to clear an emotional path for Cora’s return.
Murray-Smith skillfully creates characters that are at once fragile and vulnerable yet stubborn and duplicitous. Of her marriage, Emily says, “We are what we compose ourselves to be in the light of each other. And whatever else we are stays in the shadows.”
This opens the way for an uncomfortably lengthy game of verbal cat and mouse in which Kate casts light on the shadows in the couple’s marriage, which we learn is a wounded “companionship of despair.” Picking her way through their defenses, Kate attempts to discover what might have driven the seemingly perfect Cora away from her comfortable middle-class home. We learn that Edward is cold, repressed and repressive and Emily is overly nervy and complaint to the point of willful self-deception.
Play is littered with unfinished sentences signifying the unfinished business that’s being addressed. A simple set of a small sitting room in a box within an overly manicured garden suggests the fading grandeur of the house and the lives that are physically and emotionally contained by it.
A characteristically wordy piece from Murray-Smith that sometimes feels more like a novella than a play, “Nightfall” is a more ambitious effort than “Honour, ” which portrayed a betrayed wife coping with the collapse of her marriage. “Nighfall’s” exploration of the power of denial and reluctance to confront the past is a timely metaphor for Oz’ s relationship with its native peoples, suggesting that confronting past wrongs can mean questioning the assumptions our present life is based upon.