“The Night Watcher” –premiering at Seattle Rep’s Leo K. Theater under Daniel Sullivan’s direction — has pretty much everything you’d expect from a Charlayne Woodard solo show: frank, confessional material; laughter and tears doled out with near-perfect pacing; and a powerful, charismatic performance. What it lacks is a story, or even a convincing theme if you look at it with a hypercritical eye. Granted, most audiences probably won’t. There are enough intimate, funny and sad moments to make you feel your entertainment dollars were well spent. Yet, once the immediate emotions pass, not a lot in this script demands further consideration.
“The Night Watcher” is the fourth of Woodard’s solo, autobiographical works, after “Pretty Fire,” “Neat” and “In Real Life.” She has partnered with Sullivan on all four, at some stage in their development.
While the previous three were based on events and people from her own childhood, “The Night Watcher” looks at the role the adult Woodard has played in the lives of other children — godchildren, nieces, nephews and the occasional lost, young soul who has crossed her path. The title comes from an experience she had with a nephew whom she (and her parents) helped shelter from a threatening father at a key point in the child’s life. Woodard’s pledge to be the boy’s “night watcher” — the one who keeps him from harm as he sleeps — is an emotional high point of the show.
A number of the other vignettes, however, are less satisfying. In many cases, the interactions with youngsters she relates seem superficial: There are two babies she declines to adopt; a goddaughter who comes to her for advice and then neglects to heed it; another girl who suffers abuse and its aftermath, which Woodard says she can not recount in detail because she was miles away at the time.
The audience stays engrossed by the actress’s amazing characterizations and emotional transparency; thoughts and feelings ripple across her face like a stone skimming a quiet lake. But the episodes she enacts don’t convince us of the show’s implied premise: That mentors and “aunties” are crucial to the raising of children in today’s world. Instead, “The Night Watcher” suggests good intentions often come to naught and concerned adults frequently fail to change the course of a young person’s life.
In the second act, Woodard talks about her own special aunties, and reveals some of her mixed feelings about never having children. This subject — of childless adults and couples and the way they are viewed by family and friends — is an intriguing one, perhaps more so than a parade of youngsters passing by at a distance.
Still, there’s a lot of subtle craft at work in “The Night Watcher.” Woodard and Sullivan have scored the piece almost musically, carrying the audience to emotional climaxes at the ends of both acts. And an elegant set of louvers and projections designed by Tom Lynch and Peter Bjordahl, respectively, gracefully suggest various locales.
It’s gratifying to see a new work so lovingly tended — especially since Sullivan has just signed on as artistic consultant to help Seattle Rep get through the next year as it searches for a new artistic director. Sullivan’s tastes and talents (not to mention his good relationships with artists such as Woodard, Jon Robin Baitz, Wendy Wasserstein and others) steered the Rep through some of its most productive years in the ’80s and ’90s.