Three years ago, Seth Rozin, InterAct’s Producing Artistic Director, first read Kara Lee Corthron’s script for ETCHED IN SKIN ON A SUNLIT NIGHT. According to the program notes, he “was immediately excited about the promise” of the play. While the promise is not fulfilled in InterAct’s ambitious and uneven production, playwright Corthron has created something that has moments, images, and ideas that are likely to stay with you for a long time.
The setting is Reykjavik, Iceland, a place where the titular sunlit nights are not uncommon. Reykjavik is the unlikely home base for Jules (Phyllis Johnson), an African-American exile from the U.S., and it’s where she has built a family with investment banker Olafur (Ian Bedford) and their young daughter Kina (Aria Jones). Jules, an artist, has not been entirely forthcoming regarding the reasons for her exile, but she seems to have something in common with the mysterious American visitor Warton (Akeem Davis), and he seems well-versed in her past life. Warton and Jules are soon meeting regularly in Jules’ studio for disturbing “games” that involve inflicting pain.
The story, filled with gaps and secrets, plays out in the summer and fall of 2008, as Jules follows with rapt interest the presidential campaign of Barack Obama—hopeful events that tempt Jules to consider a visit to the states and to her mother, whom she has not seen in years. Just as things might be looking up for the U.S., however, Iceland suffers an economic fallout, costing the usually steady Olafur his job. Weaving in and out of Jules’ artistic endeavors is Jonsi (Jered McLenigan), a figure that serves as Jules’ muse and acerbic conscience. McLenigan also appears as an unnamed “Man on the Street” who might goad Olafur into joining, or even leading, Iceland’s escalating protests.
Corthron tackles numerous worthy themes as the episodic story unfolds under Whit MacLaughlin’s often impressively flashy direction, including perceptions of race, politics, economics, guilt and punishment. The play is particularly effective in showing us a world we might be unfamiliar with—the Iceland of the late 2000’s—and its strongest scenes involve Jules, Olafur, and young Kina negotiating the difficulties of being a mixed-race family and the differences between American and Icelandic social constructions of race. Unfortunately, the hidden secrets prove improbable and unmotivated once revealed, and the play goes awry in the final 20 minutes as both character and plot logic collapse in a lifeless heap—a particular shame, since Corthron had hitherto given us fascinating people to follow.
Nevertheless, the cast comes through splendidly. Phyllis Johnson etches a mercurial and multi-faceted Jules with a riveting performance—the performance doesn’t quite hold the play together, but it comes impressively close. Ian Bedford emerges as a figure frightening as well as sympathetic as a man for whom logic and sweet common sense will no longer suffice. Aria Jones gives a lively, unmannered, and often very funny performance as the alternatively precocious and perceptive daughter Kina. Akeem Davis is winning as Warton, improvising in an unfamiliar situation as he plays increasingly dangerous games with Jules. And Jered McLenigan navigates the two most problematic roles with verve and aplomb.
In the end, while ETCHED IN SKIN ON A SUNLIT NIGHT ultimately falls short, there are more than enough worthy elements and impressive performances to warrant your attention, as well as the attention of the theatre community at large.
ETCHED IN SKIN ON A SUNLIT NIGHT
by Kara Lee Corthron
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
June 1-24, 2012
InterAct Theatre Company
2030 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103