Theater review: Narrow Daylight

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Let other judges who served on the panel at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte speak for themselves. When I narrowly named Sevan Kaloustian Greene's Narrow Daylight as the best play in last year's inaugural nuVoices Play Festival, half of my decision rested on what was already before my eyes in a reading stage production - a tough, topical situation treated with a deft blend of comedy and explosive drama. Greene's protagonist, Lena, is an Iraqi widow who flees her homeland to the only place of safe refuge she can think of, the Florida home of Susan Davis, mother of the American soldier who was her husband.

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Susan, grieving over the recent deaths of her son and her husband, is too bitter and depressed to welcome Lena with open arms, even though she is pregnant with her first grandchild. On the contrary, Susan suspects that Lena is gaming the system, first luring her darling Nathan into marriage, then using his death as a passport to the U.S. and his GI benefits.

So where is the comedy? It flutters in from next door, wearing tacky slacks. A person of well-meaning Gloria Rogers, Susan's longtime best friend, is capable of talking a blue streak heavily laced with Southern Baptist cheer. Right now, the biggest event in Gloria's world is the arrival of the new Super Target - a first in provincial Panama City. She'll be joined by her daughter Anne-Marie, Nathan's last girlfriend before he enlisted, soon coming home for Christmas vacation. Until Susan emerges from her catatonic self-pity, Gloria and Anne-Marie must personify the culture shock of Lena's coming to America.

Now the other half of the reason Narrow Daylight was my top choice last year was the immense potential I saw in the script if Greene would only widen the gulf Lena and her new family and acquaintances needed to bridge to bond together. So I'm disappointed that Greene still skillfully avoids dealing with either geopolitics or religion in a story that cries out for both.

When we see Nathan in flashbacks over in Iraq, his justification for being there goes no deeper than trying to find a way to provide for the Davis household, since Mom can't find a job. Nor is there any religious strife when Lena arrives in Panama City, because she was raised a Christian. As Christmas rolls around, faith actually brings Lena closer to her new home.

The powder kegs that could go off in Narrow Daylight still don't, but the full production now before us at Actor's Theatre clearly has more heart. Everyone involved has had more time to live with these characters, especially director Peter Smeal and Allison Lamb Tansor as Susan, both on their second go-rounds with this project. Deepening Susan's gloom and nastiness, Tansor also manages to make her slightly more likable, though still far too bitchy for my taste (I'm not sure that anything short of a full pre-war flashback would sufficiently rehabilitate her). Smeal gets to use the full stage this time, effectively calling on lighting designer Hallie Gray and soundmeister Chip Decker to sharpen the transitions from Panama City to war-torn Iraq.

It would probably be enough of a recommendation to say that Catherine Smith is as fine as Nicia Carla was last year as Gloria, but with the added opportunities for bustling, bumbling, and intruding that a full production affords, I have to say that Smith has me enjoying Gloria even more. She's not simply a Baptist airhead, as she proves when she finally tells Susan off (in a manner on loan from August: Osage County).

The other newcomers are just as flawless as Smith. With quite a credible accent, Kelsey Fish bears herself with such humility, grace, and serenity as Lena that she makes a point that Greene doesn't bring out explicitly - that this Iraqi immigrant is more Christian than her American-born hosts. Helped out by the funkiest of Carrie Cranford's costume designs, Martina Logan easily distinguishes Anne-Marie as the most easy-going woman onstage.

Temperamentally, Anne-Marie is also the best match for the fallen soldier, slightly compounding the problem of casting newcomer Josh Price as Nathan. Price is a dreamboat. His Nathan is smiling, easygoing, confident, affectionate, humorous, and utterly devoid of vanity - the perfect exemplar of sunny American charm every time we see him. When he's gone, the action occasionally devolves into an Olympic competition testing which woman grieves for Nathan the most and which woman feels guiltiest about his death. Three out of the four blame themselves, so we can hand out all the medals.

Feminists looking for a play that emphatically debunks the notion that women cannot live without their men are advised to search elsewhere. I don't remember feeling that way last August when the equally handsome George Pond was the central love object, possibly because he layered on some trashiness and immaturity that weren't in the script. Now that those miniscule blemishes have been air-brushed away, it's that much more inevitable that the ideal goodness of Nathan, the spirit of the holiday season, and the wee Davis in Lena's womb will eventually bring all the women together.

Greene's balance of comedy and drama is still adroitly handled, and in its full Actor's Theatre premiere, the impact of the emotional reconciliations in Act 2 is more potent than before. But the dramatic component is still frustratingly one-dimensional, dependent on how long Susan can sustain her bitchiness. That's a shame, when Greene could be heaping much bigger issues on the table.

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