Emotions Run High in NJ Rep's Sunlight
Also see Bob's review of Arms and the Man
Sunlight plays out in real time in the campus home of the President of a small private East Coast university on a snowy winter night. As his play, written in real time, begins, author Sharr White places us in the midst of a crisis situation which has his overwrought protagonists at one another's throats for much of the evening.
Matthew Gibbon, the aging, liberal University president, is in deep trouble after being driven over the edge by his son-in-law and former protégé, the Dean of the University Law School, Vincent Krieger. The neo-conservative Krieger has co-opted the integrity of the law school by hiring law professors who share his philosophy. Currently, Krieger is being investigated by the Defense Department for having provided legal opinions justifying the abusive behavior and torture of prisoners which led to the murder of children in violation of the Geneva Convention. Driven over the edge by the disgrace which the investigation of Krieger and his cohorts had brought upon his beloved University, Gibbon had lost control and broken into Krieger's office which he trashed before spreading dog feces about it. Then, a libelous student newspaper financed by big conservative donors from D.C. and elsewhere, attacking Gibbons and supporting Krieger, was circulated on campus. Gibbon foolishly exercised his right to close down the newspaper in question, losing him whatever support he still had on campus.
When Sunlight begins, Gibbon is off at a faculty meeting facing a vote of no confidence. His position seems to have reached its end, and he is in danger of losing both his pension and his freedom because of his behavior. His daughter Catherine, a sharp, no nonsense attorney, and his longtime amanuensis Maryanne are locking horns over papers which Catherine removed from his campus office and is now trying to shred. Soon, Catherine's husband Vincent will come to this residence where he has long been persona non grata in order to try to negotiate Gibbon's resignation and try to save his floundering marriage. And in good time, Gibbon will follow to complete the evening's agitated quartet.
The background and events described above are in progress when the play begins and the clarifications are conveyed piecemeal in agitated, rapidly delivered dialogue. Thus, it takes some time and effort to discern the status and situations of both Gibbon and Krieger.
Still, Sunlight is engrossing and will keep you thinking throughout with debates that arise organically from the characters and their situations. Its strengths are both in the dimensionality of its characters (the wrong guy is neither villainously evil nor meanly vengeful). The good guy's behavior is terrible (although it is the bad guy who makes him act that way). Each is allowed to make the best possible case for himself. That is a very good thing for both the play's integrity and its theatricality. On the other hand, my experience tells me that it is a large stretch to posit that it is the neo-cons who dominate the faculty and threaten diverse speech on college campuses.
Laura Piquado in a richly nuanced performance delineates a teetering Catherine who barely manages not to allow her emotional turbulence overwhelm her intelligence and competency. It is her approval and loyalty for which her father and husband are competing, and Piquado has the heft to provide the play's emotional core.
Richard M. Davidson bravely plays Matthew Gibbon at the edge of madness and beyond. At moments, I felt that his performance was about to leap out of control. However, Davidson made it through the evening under the wire and on track.
Frank Mihelich's Krieger displays a wide range of emotions as he struggles with his advisory legal analyses to the Defense Department. Corinne Edgerly is feisty, lively and warm at heart as Maryanne.
Although Sunlight might be more rapidly accessible with a less frenzied and high pitched start, for the most part, director SuzAnne Barabas combines energy and explosive emotions to deliver its theatrical punch.
Sunlight continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm / Matinees.: Saturday 3 pm & Sunday 2 pm) through August 8, 2010 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org.
Sunlight by Sharr White; directed by SuzAnne Barabas