A barrage of issues explodes on stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village with Charles Fuller’s One Night…. Start with the plight of returning veterans in need of help but facing stony and inept bureaucracy. Add the overlay of sexual assault on women combatants. Layer on the complicated sexual politics between men and women and a subset of those sexual politics specific to men and women of color. It’s a busy 90 minutes with no intermission.
Fuller won the Pulitzer for drama in 1982 for A Soldier’s Play, the story of a racially charged search by a black captain for the murderer of a black sergeant on a Louisiana army base in 1944.
One Night… is freighted with more stratified conflict, not updated racism, and not straightforward sexism, more like a pebble in a pool radiating multiple rings of conflict.
It’s difficult to get emotionally on-board with any of the characters as they are so damaged. It is wearying to witness the struggle. As this drama focuses on the shattered consciousnesses of the protagonists one presumes the audience is meant to be distressed.
Alicia G. (Rutina Wesley), a confidant black staff sergeant, is gang raped in Iraq by three soldiers, two of whom she can identify. The third rapist later explains they raped her because she was uppity, bragging about her prowess in battle, as the men did; because she was a woman where they thought women didn’t belong; and because they could get away with it…oh, and because war is hell.
When we meet Alicia, she and former corporal Horace Lloyd (Grantham Coleman) arrive at a crummy motel having just escaped from a fire in the shelter where they had been living. We learn they both suffer from PTSD, he from his time in “the sandbox” as a sniper; she from the rape as well as her time in combat. Horace is caring for her and he seems a good, sympathetic man.
Wesley’s two-tiered performance is a disciplined portrayal of the devastation she has suffered. Once a confident soldier, she now cowers. She sees ghosts. She has flashbacks. When she sleeps we see the rape, from her point of view, projected on the wall above her. She ‘goes up’ in panic and uses number sequences and catch phrases to bring herself down. She is compelling.
Coleman’s Horace has a better grip on his terrors. They do not explain his edgy desperation. He seems to be caring for Alicia but it is minute-to-minute. He has a foot out the door from the get-go.
K.K. Moggie and Matthew Montelongo juggle multiple roles with conviction. Cortez Nance Jr. plays Meny. He runs the sleazy motel and, as a side business, runs girls. He shows Horace and Alicia in and can’t keep his eyes off Alicia.
The first words from Alicia as she surveys the room are: “It’s kinda tight in here though.” And it is. For Alicia any crowding is overwhelming. But for the audience, in this lovely but narrowly proportioned Cherry Lane theater, focused on this modest motel room set for 90 minutes, and a script crowded with sidebars, it’s pretty tight in there too.
Set designer John McDermott, video designer Gil Sperling, and sound designer Sean O’Halloran make some magic. The back wall of the motel room set converts to an Iraqi battle site each time the flashbacks come. There is the visual rape scene mentioned above and in a deft use of off- stage enhancement, exchanges between prostitutes and their ‘johns’ in the next room are all but broadcast through the bathroom vent.
Director Clinton Turner Davis subtly maintains the tension between the protagonists until very late in the game. Davis plays air-traffic-controller as he lands imagined characters with precision on the same runways inhabited by the real characters.
All in all, you do get a sense of what PTSD might be like. And you do get a sense of the despair returning vets experience as their basic needs go unmet and they confront the shambles of their altered futures. You do not get a sense that Alicia will see justice or even comfort. Bottom line, it is a worthy play for engaging so many harsh realities. But, at the end of the day, as Alicia says: “It’s kinda tight in here.”
One Night… by Charles Fuller, Directed by Clinton Turner David
A co-production of the Cherry Lane Theatre and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, runs through December 15th. Monday and Tuesday at 7pm. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Matinees Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets available at the box office or on-line at: ovationtix.com