Given that June is National Aphasia Awareness Month, and that the National Aphasia Assn. has ponied up some of the production costs, there’s probably a built-in audience for “Night Sky,” commissioned from Susan Yankowitz by the late Joe Chaikin, inspirational founder of the Open Theater and himself afflicted with aphasia –the inability to use or comprehend words. Scribe extends lots of sympathy to her Chaikin model, an internationally renowned astronomer who loses her ability to speak after an accident. But while the stricken victim is delineated with care by Yankowitz and played with conviction by Jordan Baker, the shelf life of this inexpertly mounted oddity should expire come July.
Long known in experimental theater circles as a fearless writer, Yankowitz doesn’t let the side down here. Although her portrait of Anna (Baker) takes a compassionate view of her efforts to overcome aphasia, the writer is brutally frank in her depiction of a woman whose exceptional mind and dedication to her work make her tough to live with.
Before the accident that leaves her brains scrambled, Anna makes an effort to be the perfect mate, mother and scientific genius — shopping, cooking, buying her daughter’s prom dress and reacting on the double to her partner’s sexual signals. But this accomplished woman has also got her priorities straight, and when it’s professional crunch time, the domestic duties, sex included, get shoved aside.
It takes an extraordinary man to partner with such an extraordinary woman, and Daniel is not it. Neither is miscast Jim Stanek, who gives full whining rights to this loser, an opera singer in futile search of a job while neglecting to provide the warmth and charm that would keep someone like Anna from strangling him.
Forced to play house-husband when Anna is incapacitated by her accident, Daniel rebels. But given that she’s been waiting on him for years, Anna wonders, in the halting language her brain is reassembling for her, what’s unfair about him playing caregiver?
Watching Anna and Daniel struggle with their reversal of roles is not nearly as heartbreaking as watching Anna’s fierce but doomed efforts to recover enough of her lost communication skills to travel abroad to an international astronomy conference to deliver the scientific paper that would be the capstone of her career.
Baker, who clearly has a lock on Anna, makes the fine distinction between her vulnerabilities as a mother and as a scientist. She hits her emotional mark in heart-to-heart scenes with daughter Jennifer, played with sassy intelligence by a watchable Lauren Ashley Carter.
But the real anguish goes into Anna’s efforts to recover the communication skills that define her intellectual identity. Baker has a way of throwing out her hands that conveys the killing frustration at being able to formulate complex scientific concepts but losing or confusing the words — those precious symbols she needs to communicate her thoughts.
Oddly, Anna is not nearly as angry as you’d think given the level of her intelligence. But that could be because Yankowitz doesn’t really convey the extent of her intellect. From the snippets of lectures and papers delivered by Anna and her colleague, Bill (Tuck Milligan, also miscast), the science seems rather rudimentary.
So, for that matter, does the stagecraft. While the Broken Chord Collective supplies OK aural scenery, the bland visuals would have been better scrapped for some otherworldly tech effects that conveyed some sense of the infinitely dazzling heavens above — and so out of reach of this earthbound production.