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San Francisco by Richard Connema

West Coast Premiere Of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Nightfall

Also see Richard's review of The Chairs

Playhouse West is currently presenting the West Coast Premiere of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s psychological drama Nightfall, running through Sunday, February 23rd. This 100 minute no intermission gothic drama had it first American production in 2001 at the New York Stage and Film Festival where it starred Richard Schiff (West Wing) and Patricia Wetting and received good reviews. Ms. Murray-Smith is also the playwright of the acclaimed Honour.

Nightfall is a dark story of a middle class, middle aged couple whose memories on an early event differ harshly from each other. The couple has received a phone call from their daughter who says she will come back home at “nightfall.” They have dreamt of this night for seven years, since the last time they saw their daughter was the night before she ran away from home at age sixteen. Kate rings the door bell and she informs the couple she is a friend of the runaway girl. She has come to test the couple's memories of why the daughter had run away. Nothing has prepared them for the decision they must face before seeing the daughter, one which will change the nature of their relationship forever.

The playwright has she “was interested in the idea of memory and how to make theatrical the complexity of what memory is and how subjective it is. Two people can have the same experience but recollect it differently.” The drama goes into family dysfunction and sexual abuse and various kinds of controversial areas. As the playwright says, “it is a play about memory.”

The main problem with Nightfall is that is takes a while to get started and actually get into the meat of the drama. Sometimes the language ranges from David Mamet to Edward Albee-like dialogues. The conversation becomes too stylish, and the words are awkward, with lines that are not completed. The playwright attempts to be poetic, idiosyncratic and literary, but she does not succeed in the first 45 minutes of the play. We get lines like what Emily says to her husband: “I’m not talking about ups and downs, Edward, I’m talking about catastrophes of the soul.”

Going into the last 55 minutes, the play gets moving and we get the meaty stuff about the truth of the daughter running away at a tender age. We see a little of Albee’s Virginia Woolf in the three characters. The play suddenly becomes believable. However, the shocking revelation is telegraphed to the audience well before the actual disclosure.

The three actors are superb in their roles and they pour their hearts into making the characters believable. Robert Hamm is masterful in his performance as the husband and he displays the great range of acting in this production. Gretchen Grant is excellent as the wife. Janie Bergmann, who plays the mysterious stranger Kate, has the right amount of a catalyst in her acting of the part. The set by Doug Ham is excellent for this band box theater and Lois Grandi does a splendid job of directing the difficult play.

Nightfall runs through Sunday, February 23rd. The Northern California premiere of of the Off-Broadway smash hit Only Kidding! by Jim Geoghan opens on March 28th. For tickets call 925-942-0300. Playhouse West is located at 1345 Locust Street, Walnut Creek, Ca.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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