Blood Skyby Yasmine Beverly Rana. Directed by Mari Andrejco.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Paul McNeil and Sophia von Haeften in rehearsal; photo provided
"I silenced it. . ."
Early in Yasmine Beverly Rana’s play, "Blood Sky" a character named Guy confronts a character named Joley, a fourteen year old girl, with the stunning information that he is watching her, implying watching over her, protecting her. She doesn’t buy it, but she wants to. She wants to desperately. Her life, up to that time, has not been an easy or a happy one. Her father, named Beau, has left his family after what would appear to have been a bit of child molestation; her mother, Lily, lives in a state of white-trash denial; her home is by the violent shores of the Mississippi and it is no great shakes with its corrugated tin roof and a protective fence of barbed wire. Everything is symbolic here of something else.
So it is no surprise when the eighteen year old version of Joley takes off with a young man in a bad car for destinations unknown. This edition of our heroine has a need to hear and to say "I love you" whether it is sincere or not. It’s just the words that compel her actions, impel her needs. A thirty year old edition of Joley looks back on all of this with a tinged sense of humor, an almost, but not quite, nostalgia for time lost and an early maturity that has melted into a place of security called style.
Nothing in this play could be called shallow, and yet the symbolism and representationism that runs rampant through this work leaves us wondering and wondering. "Have we missed something?" "Do we understand what has happened?" The playwright drops hints about things we haven’t witnessed and challenges us to catch up. When, in the opening moments of the second act, a violation has been related in obscure terms after a whispered message has been offered in the first act it is confusing. Has Joley at 14 actually been sexually used by Guy or not? Is Guy even real? He would seem to be; he touches the girl and may have gone overboard in protecting her from an assault by two boys. And really - who is Guy? Is he the devil, or God, or an angel or a man with an obsessive lust for young teenage women? Or is he a figment of the imagination of a damaged child whose own levels of violence may never be acknowledged?
The play confronts a number of hot-button topics and never gives up its internal secrets. Under the clean and crisp direction of Mari Andrejco, assisted ably by lighting designer Ben Elliott, an excellent company of actors pulls off the near-impossible task of making all of the obscure elements in the writing move forward into the light of a blood-red sky. Andrejco gives us reality where only suggestion appears in the script. She lets us hear the inner screams in Joley. She pushes the limits of reality into a hyper-reality, theatrical and honest at the same time.
Rachel Siegel is the oldest Joley, the narrator, the examiner of her own past and she pulls out the stops, especially in the final sequence in which she unites the various versions of herself in a psychological embrace that leaves us wondering how much truth there has been in the play. Her brave calm smile, her soothing modern been-through-therapy response to her own memories is played with assurance by Siegel and it rings true.
The middle version, at 18, of Joley is played with conviction and reality by Sophia von Haeften. Her on-the-road teenager is clearly troubled and needy and on the brink of out of control as she toys with Stone, the young man in whose car she is escaping her white trash upbringing. The actress here makes the oddest of lines work to her advantage. She blames herself for every disadvantage she brings to this roadside friendship and yet she also flaunts those same things in a brazen and heated manner. Von Haeften’s open honesty makes her character believable.
The real heroine, the 14 year old Joley, is played with remarkable clarity by Caroline Fairweather, an 8th grade student at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield, MA. The tragedy within this play belongs to this character and not her older selves. She is the main attraction, not just for us but for the men and boys we see and don’t see. Fairweather gives the play its center column of strength as she emblazons the stage with frankness in her playing. We feel the threats she feels; we imagine the ideals she epitomizes. The actress here is a natural and she has the good luck to play opposite two of the best character actors in the region, feeding off their naturalness and their abilities, bringing her best out and giving her every advantage.
Karen Lee is Lily, the mother of Joley, the ignorer of signs, the revealer of off-stage information. She has played slutty roles before but this is a different side of her ability revealed. Lily is the modestly caring mom here, caring more than she can reveal and revealing only the information and attitudes that apply to serving her need to bury the secrets. Lee plays this so very well. She has been restrained in this role, probably by Andrejco, and so she emerges as a bizarre and sympathetic character. If you know Lee’s work in other roles, this is one you cannot miss.
Guy is played with a disturbing sensibility by Andrew Joffe. It is difficult to be a heroic villain but that is what he becomes as the play progresses. He provides a weirdness without which this would be a turgid melodrama. It is in his playing of the role that wonderment happens. Joffe uses to his advantage the vagueness of the character’s lines to leave impressions for Joley and for us as to his true identity. It’s a brilliant performance.
Paul McNeil is excellent as Stone, the driver who spirits away von Haeften’s Joley. Will Demick and Tony Corbett work together nicely as the teenage assaulters.
Lisa Meyers three-part set works well and is intriguing to view. Robert Allen’s costumes exude time and place and station in life.
All in all, this play is a fine attack on certain aspects of life lived during the past thirty years or so in places foreign to most of us, the lush shores of the country’s most powerful river in rural Louisiana. Don’t expect heavy accents, though, as this company has eschewed all that. Instead prepare yourself for a drama of mystery, half-truths, exploration and symbolism. Get ready for revelations that may be Biblical, psychological or rhetorical. Get set for a fine evening of "think-about-it" theater. But Go!
Blood Sky plays at New Stage Performing Arts Center at 55 North Street in Pittsfield, MA through March 25. For tickets and information call the theater at 413-418-0999.