Charlayne Woodard’s new solo piece, “The Night Watcher,” lands in town polished to a high shine after regional showings at Seattle Rep, La Jolla and the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Calling up her own experiences, the childless thesp recounts how she assumed the role of “Auntie” — with its attendant duties of friend, confidante and meddling substitute mom — to her friends’ kids. Protean performer gives voice to all her charges, from squalling infants to troubled teens, along with their hapless, harried, often clueless parents. Each story, hilarious or heartbreaking, speaks to the joy and sadness of being Auntie to many, mother to none.
The stage may be bare, but it fills up fast when Woodard — all smiles and dressed in casual chic — comes on, bristling with energy and eager to share the insight that inspired this piece. “The world doesn’t need more kids” is how she puts it to a stranger who criticizes her for not having children of her own. “It needs more people to step into the gap and help the kids who are already here.”
Because it features so many of the children who received her surrogate parenting, “Watcher” has less of the autobiographical stamp of Woodard’s previous solo work: “Pretty Fire,” “Neat” and “In Real Life.” After a brief, almost cursory explanation of why she postponed having children of her own — “If I have a baby, I can’t be the baby” — thesp throws herself into an enthusiastic account of how she became unofficial Auntie to a little army of kiddies. And while she keeps us generally informed of developments in her own life and career, the children quickly take over the narrative — and the whole show.
First, there was the grandly named Indira Adulata Spivak, met as an infant on her christening day, who grows up to ask Auntie’s help on a crisis that leads to a deep rift with the girl’s parents. It must have hurt, because in recollection the intensity of the pain cuts like a knife.
Then came Benamarie, a spoiled-rotten adopted child who pays a hilarious visit to Woodard and husband Harris in Los Angeles. Assuming a nasal whine and a classic teenager sneer, thesp captures the kid with the broad strokes of a caricature artist — loving, but brutally blunt.
The children aren’t always so amusing. Some of them are desperate for love — like Kya, a throwaway child who makes a pathetic bid to replace her Auntie’s dead dog. Others are trouble — like Nala, who brings the cops to the door.
In Woodard’s warm hands, they are all loved. And under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, their individual portraits come across with crispness, clarity — and humor.
Woodard is such a dazzling performer, she almost makes us forget the unspoken question of why her own home is childless. Late in the play, recalling that crucible moment when she and her husband decided to postpone parenthood, she allows herself to sound wistful: “That tiny bit of time I had to have a child, it flew away. I ran out of time. I missed that.”
That quiet expression of disappointment, along with a few elliptical references to the reasons why that precious time just “flew away,” wouldn’t satisfy the expectations of emotional bloodletting raised by any conventional autobiographical show. Here, that modest hint of a wounded ego is more than enough.