Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Describe the Night
Wilma Theater
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebeca's review of A Woman of No Importance

Sarah Gliko, Steven Rishard, and Ross Beschler
Photo by Johanna Austin
Rajiv Joseph's award-winning Describe the Night is a profound and timely examination of truth, deception and power. Revised specifically for director Blanka Zizka's production, it is executed to absolute perfection by the Wilma Theater's extraordinary cast and crew. More than just phenomenal entertainment, Describe the Night is a tense political thriller, an epic work of historical fiction, and a surreal folktale rich in romance and magic.

The play takes place in Poland, Russia, and East Germany, jumping backward and forward through time between 1920 and 2010. The story follows eight characters—lovers, friends, families and strangers—from the Polish-Soviet War through Putin's rise to power. There are recognizable historical figures, a love triangle, and an engrossing account of Putin's early career, but summarizing the narrative chronologically would spoil the mystery and be a disservice to the play's fascinating structure, in which seemingly random sequences come into focus like a slowly developing Polaroid.

Zizka's production is so well cast it is as if the characters have materialized directly from playwright Rajiv Joseph's mind onto the stage. Sarah Gliko is quietly heartbreaking as Nikolai's smart but powerless young wife Yevgenia, but when she plays a freer, less subdued Yevgenia 50 years later she is a fearsome force of nature. Ross Beschler and Steven Rishard are spellbinding as Isaac and Nikolai, the officer and the artist, so different and yet both so completely stubbornly Russian. The authenticity of their relationship anchors the story, and the dialogue between them is mesmerizing.

There is an exquisite moment when Urzula (Campbell O'Hare) makes her way over a narrow aisle overlooking the stage without saying a word. In the half a minute it takes O'Hare to cross, her face and body speak volumes about the misery of the last six months and her elation at moving on. During a pause that lasts only an instant, Brett Ashley Robinson experiences a flash of comprehension that hits like a shock wave. Perhaps the highest praise I can pay to the cast is that after nearly three hours, I was disappointed when the house lights came up. I wanted just one more glimpse into Urzula's later life. One more meal with Yevgenia.

Matt Saunders' unique set design is spectacular, featuring an eerie forest on stage and a clinically cold office below the audience seats. Tom Weaver's dynamic lighting is impressive and Christopher Ash's stunning projections elevate the play to a whole other level. Sound designer and composer Christopher Colucci is also a tremendous boon to the production, building emotional tension and fully engulfing the audience in a world of secrets and myths.

There is an especially powerful exchange in Describe the Night when a young KGB operative must choose between reading his NKVD file and rewriting it. Between finding out the truth about his past and erasing it forever. He chooses to change the record rather than discover the truth. Watching this sequence just hours after the United States Senate chose to forgo witness testimony which might make it harder to justify their foregone conclusion was incredible.

Describe the Night has been extended through February 22, 2020, at Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia PA. Tickets are available at the Wilma's box office, by visiting, or by calling 215-546-7824.

Ross Beschler as Isaac
Keith Conallen as Vova
Sarah Gliko as Yevgenia
Anthony Martinez-Briggs as Feliks
Campbell O'Hare as Urzula
Steven Rishard as Nikolai
Brett Ashley Robinson as Mariya/Mrs. Petrovna

Artistic Team:
Director: Blanka Zizka
Set Designer: Matt Saunders
Lighting Designer: Thom Weaver
Costume Designer: Vasilija Zivanic
Sound Designer and Composer: Christopher Colucci
Projection Designer: Christopher Ash
Dramaturg: Walter Bilderback
Stage Manager: Patreshettarlini Adams
Production Manager: Chris Nelson