Those who have experienced the death of a loved one may find that one of the most difficult parts is accepting the loss and moving on with life afterwards. That's the issue faced by Jackie, the central character in J. Grawemeyer's new play at Center Stage/NY, Night Ether. It's a worthy topic, yes, but deserving of a cleaner treatment than the one it receives here.
Grawemeyer revels in elevated, florid writing - none of her characters speaking quite the way normal people speak. Every word and line is overstuffed with meaning and significance, too rife with stated emotion, as if Grawemeyer wanted to make sure her characters said everything just in case her actors couldn't figure it out. The result is a shallow, albeit creative exploration of her topic.
But, in fitting with Grawemeyer's style, the link between fantasy and reality is always blurred; that's what Grawemeyer gets right. Jackie (Malinda Walford), so distraught over the death of her husband that she ponders suicide, drinks from a bottle of ether, and is transported into a dream world where nothing is exactly what it seems. Are the spirits she finds there real people who have died, or just figments of her own imagination? And will she be able to bring her husband back? These questions are addressed by the appearance of an outsider, Cliff (Jeff Pagliano), who arrives at Jackie's house as part of his work (deliberately left mysterious until the play's final lines) and becomes part of Jackie's maybe-delusion.
The closest thing to a plot present in Night Ether is whether Cliff will be able to save Jackie from herself and convince her to move on with life, or whether she will drag him completely into her nightmare world. And one of the strength of Grawemeyer's script is that there is enough give and take on both sides of this issue to keep you actively wondering about this. Cliff provides glimpses of compassion and humanity, while Jackie's world constantly revolves around the unspoken and the bizarre (Cliff dons a dress for questionable reasons at two different points, for example).
This element of the story keeps your attention (if not raptly) throughout the play, and it's given the show's director, Don Jordan, and lighting designer Raquel Davis something to latch onto. They have supplied an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere, brilliantly suggesting the haze of disbelief Jackie must truly be experiencing. Is her husband really gone? Is any of this real? By preserving every line and action through a thin haze, Jordan keeps you guessing at that, too. Jordan's depiction is startlingly close to life.
Yet in few other ways does Night Ether resemble reality, or is it compelling. Grayemeyer's dialogue is obtuse enough to be truly off-putting in places, and none of the actors prove capable of giving it true emotional life. This makes Night Ether's running time seem insupportable at only eighty minutes.
Perhaps the play's most unsettling aspect is suggested by a line in the program: "The play opens three days after Jackie's husband, Sam, has passed away." Has Jackie allowed sufficient time to mourn her husband's loss? Is she, perhaps, moving on too quickly? And how successful will her new relationship with Chuck be as a result? These are the unintended questions Grawemeyer raises, and while she deserves credit for tackling as difficult and important a subject as this one, in both concept and execution, Night Ether proves insufficient.
Pilot House Theater Company