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The Night Watcher

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Charlayne Woodard
Photo by James Leynse.

Charlayne Woodard may not have any children of her own, but she's got more than enough maternal spirit to light up a theater for a year. Given the relatively short lengths of its plays' runs, that theater will probably not be Primary Stages, where Woodard's new solo show, The Night Watcher, just opened. But it should be. Woodard's personal and affecting memoir about the children she's helped shepherd through life is heartwarming and lovely enough to sustain a healthy run for audiences filled with parents with children, children with parents, or those who are neither but wish they were.

Over a series of 10 scenes, which have been directed with intense sensitivity and a buoyant light-comedy flair by Daniel Sullivan, Woodard tells of her own numerous just-missed-it brushes with motherhood. In "Hot Out the Oven," she receives a call from Alfre Woodard, who works with a foundation that places mixed-race babies with a mixed-race families, and thinks Charlayne Woodard and her husband would be perfect to receive one. The only catch: The baby is literally being born during the phone call, so the decision can't wait. Another missed opportunity comes by way of "West of Heaven," set in "an intimate beauty salon," in which Woodard learns the history of a baby girl whose mother literally threw her at her father - but who survived against the odds and eventually became Woodard's cherished surrogate niece.

"Indira" finds Woodard embracing her charge as godmother, helping her adolescent goddaughter, Indira, through not just an unplanned pregnancy, but a more difficult reconciliation with her parents. She struggles with several kinds of discrimination in "Benamarie," when her husband's brother's adopted mixed-race daughter comes for a visit and proves unable to deal with ordinary black people or actors who aren't stars, rich, or both. There are two harrowing personal tales in "Africa" and "Nala": In the former, Woodard tries to exert proper educational influence over a former roommate's daughter, who ends up battered and bruised (emotionally as well as physically) on a trip to South Carolina; in the latter, Woodard rescues her sister's son from falling in with a bad crowd and helps him find his true calling running in track meets.

Not every scene is scintillating. "Aunties," in which Woodard reminiscences about the relations (blood and otherwise) who helped her grow up and grow wise, and "Missed It," about a chance encounter on the subway that restates a message about Woodard's fitness for parenting that needs no elucidation, are technical successes that don't much advance the underlying story. And as amusing as "Puppies" is, showing the lengths to which Woodard is willing to keep her dog happy and warm on a trip to chilly upstate New York, it dilutes the theme too much at the start of the second act, just when things should be ramping up most.

Sullivan's thrillingly unfussy direction helps tamp down some of this unevenness, but Woodard doesn't need much help. She's a magnetic storyteller, who only gently modulates the children through her own personality, but gives each one such vivid life that you'll never get them confused. She's particularly powerful invoking the shattered innocence of Indira and Africa, unlocking the terror within the curiosity within the uncertainty about the rapidly changing worlds around them. But her momentary portrayal of the girl from the hair salon story is triumphant in its simplicity, a melting representation of pure love that doesn't know how close it came to never existing in the first place. On a similar note, Woodard explains her successfully urging Indira away from abortion and into adoption with a towering sense of accomplishment that only further suggests that life, in any form, is her most vital pursuit.

That she hasn't needed to give birth herself in order to make a profound difference for many kids and their families is what makes The Night Watcher such a poignant exploration of alternative parenthood, and a reminder that love comes in many unexpected forms. The title, by the way, derives from Nala's term for himself: After being told by his otherwise absent father that he would burn down the house if he couldn't see Nala, the boy took to staying up all night to guard the house and the people who truly cared about him. Woodard let him sleep one night, and became "the night watcher" herself, becoming for Nala something of a godsend. But for theatregoers a part of or highly attuned to the family persuasion, she's still not far off.

The Night Watcher
Through October 31
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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