Charles Randolph-Wright’s “The Night Is a Child,” helmed by Sheldon Epps at the Pasadena Playhouse, is a rather ordinary sudser hoping to gain zest (if not heft) from the rhythms and culture of Brazil, whence the troubled Easton family journeys in search of cleansing and closure. Setting’s freshness is indeed the evening’s singular feature, for the play doesn’t take us anywhere else new or surprising.
JoBeth Williams brings her characteristic emotional genuineness to Harriet, an unexceptional Boston widow who’s had a lifelong obsession with all things Brazilian. Years of teach-yourself Portuguese come in handy when an awful tragedy involving late son Michael (Tyler Pierce in flashback) sends her flying down to Rio, intent on discovering the grief cure only a tropical climate awash in magical realism can provide. In plays and movies, anyway.
Epps’ design team finds elegantly minimalist means of creating that South American ambience. Yael Pardess’ set of discreetly sliding panels is dominated by two rectangular screens on which Jason Thompson posts ingenious combinations of photos, paintings and even video. (Twin rear projections as cars careen through Rio’s streets are a treat.)
Meanwhile, Lap Chi Chu’s lights escort us above and below the Equator in their shifts between the warm earth tones of sun-swept beaches and the chilly blues and grays of a New England winter and family in torment.
Yet the mood is consistently belied by the script’s indulgence in cliche and by-the-numbers dramaturgy. This is the Brazil the Tourist Board propounds, a land of nonstop carnival in which all North Americans are repressed and all the locals loose-limbed and well adjusted. (One does steal Harriet’s purse, but the crime disturbs no one, as it’s never mentioned again.)
Up North, one is momentarily taken aback by the deceased boy’s central shocking mystery, tidily revealed at the first-act curtain. But it peters out into more cliche before being essentially abandoned.
Randolph-Wright’s dialogue adds a stilted “As the World Turns” air. As Harriet bonds with an Ipanema free spirit (Sybyl Walker), or the grown Easton kids (Monette Magrath, and Pierce as the surviving twin) clash, each conversation is squarely on-point about the topic at hand — the family’s conflicts; the Brazilian atmosphere; Michael — with no room provided for subtext.
And Harriet’s gee-whiz awkwardness, corny as Kansas in August, is too obviously destined to succumb to the prevailing joie de vivre. (One waits patiently to hear of her passion for 1958’s “Black Orpheus,” and sure enough … ) There’s never doubt that all problems will be solved as if in time for the last commercial, and anyone professing no interest in the samba will surely be swiveling hips at the final fadeout.
If this were the 1950s, a large ensemble would be hired to personify the Copacabana’s physicality and a Candomble Voodoo ritual’s forbidden heat. But only three thesps are available under today’s economics to evoke an entire throbbing culture on the enormous Pasadena stage. With the exception of Williams, the playing of the stock roles seems far too broad, and Epps keeps having characters declaim face front no matter how private a conversation would be.
Whether or not these are efforts to overcome the production’s social underpopulation, everyday Rio stubbornly resists coming to life.