The Vagrancy has a gift for working in small spaces. Director Caitlin Hart and her team have transformed the intimate Studio/Space in Hollywood into an immersive no man’s land. A narrow strip of stage cuts between the two banks of seats. As the audience enters, a woman in her 30s who carries the years of someone twice her age, barefoot, her clothes near tatters, but intact, washes a few small garments and sings Depression Era tunes that run together into a long sorrowful dirge. Projected behind her is a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Indoors and outdoors, fever dream and dull reality comingle, morphing as time passes through 60 years and four episodes in the decline of a family. The play begins and the woman exits. A projection flashes briefly on the opposite wall revealing the title, “Nadine,” the first of four plays performed in an evening called WHAT OF THE NIGHT by Maria Irene Fornes.
A kind of romantic poverty turns ugly fast as Pete, a plug of a man in a frayed suit corners a kid named Charlie and demands to know what he got: Charlie procures saleable items by robbing bums and wins a beating for his trouble. He wins a second when it’s revealed that he failed to take a man’s underwear, not wanting the same done to him. Charlie’s mother Nadine, the woman from the top of the show intervenes managing somehow to intimidate the brutish Pete then seducing him into lending her money to buy medicine for her sick infant. In a brief moment of hope, Charlie is seen preparing to marry the childlike Birdie while Nadine nurses her youngest and muses about the child she gave away, his younger sister Rainbow and the gentle Charlie to her friend and neighbor Lena. But hope is dashed when Pete later returns, drunk and making lewd advances on Birdie. Charlie stands up to him and Pete passes out after a harangue of disgust, but Birdie leaves, desperate to get out, and begging Charlie to come with.
The cycle of getting by self-debasement continues several years later in “Springtime” with Rainbow, now grown and living with the love of her life, Greta who is ill. When Rainbow resorts to stealing to get medicine she spells perhaps her own doom and that of her love. In the third movement, “Lust” we meet Ray, the child Nadine gave away who’s come up in the world, but not without cost. Talked into marrying his boss Joseph’s fragile daughter Helena, Ray’s hunger slowly metastasizes, consuming wife and father- in-law and ending in a fever dream; only Ray too is consumed. In the play’s final movement, “Hunger,” Ray has become one of the masses in a shelter post financial (we assume) apocalypse, obsessed with an idea for orderliness in the distribution of rations while Charlie, now an aged and addled bureaucrat oversees the sad proceedings. These days a member of the privileged few, Birdie returns searching for Ray whom she loves and for whom she once worked. In the play’s final moments, an angel descends and Birdie collapses at the sight of what the needy are reduced to.
Fornes’ language is plain, but formidable and occasionally wears a little like an overlarge suit for the nonetheless solid cast, and the play moves rather slowly in its first two movements. Gina Manziello shows us Nadine’s thick-skinned exhaustion without resorting to stereotype. It’s a little hard to tell how old Charlie and Rainbow are meant to be in scene one; however, Marc Pelina ages beautifully as the doddering and hope-averse Charlie, while as the grown Rainbow, Alex Marshall-Brown is winnowed from loving innocence to wounded betrayal. Lisa Jai completely morphs from a wide-eyed and charmingly loopy or perhaps slightly unstable young Birdie into a woman of state in her advanced years. Her ability with language and physical transformation are highlighted when she appears as the disturbing Wang. Laura Caudill is lovely as the Angel and The Girl. While Steve Madar takes on the herculean labor of Pete’s brutality and stupidity, it is Thaddeus Shafer as Ray who really sets the play on its legs. Like Jai, his gift with language and keen ability to inhabit the size of this benignly vicious and hopeless man wins the evening. He is matched in presence by Linn Bjørnland who as his wife Helena is as fragile as glass; even if occasionally we can’t hear her, she bleeds frailty and fills the space in her scenes with Ray. Joseph Culliton manages a disturbing affability as Helena’s father even when exacting sexual favors. As Greta, Elitia Daniels is beautiful and her heartbreak is palpable while Kathleen Hagerty shape shifts from home-spun neighbor to verbomaniac Reba who closes the evening with a powerfully delivered monologue demanding proper feeding of the poor’s newest member.
Supporting Hart’s clean and often powerful staging, Matt Richter’s beautifully desolate lighting perfectly captures the coming collapse while Matthew H. Gill’s simple, transforming set, with the help of projections, never feels claustrophobic even as it devolves. The set changes themselves are staged in a kind of chaotic dance by choreographer Kara Karstedt that lets the audience breathe through the intermission-less two hours without losing its energy. Like Madison-Margaret Huckaby’s props, costumes by designer Traci LaDue evoke the 1930’s through the 1980s and then the world post- apocalypse without drawing attention to themselves and so further feed the world in which the audience is immersed. Likewise, makeup by Nicholas Ruiz adds without distraction. Jen Albert does a superb job with choreographing fights and stunts in the small space.
With the American middle class losing ground on all fronts, the fear at the heart of Fornes play is extremely timely. Plagued on all fronts, no longer untouchable by the world’s ills post the Great Depression, the question of empathy arises. The poor are no longer “over there.” They never were, and Fornes maps an emotional abyss. Powerfully staged and performed, the Vagrancy’s WHAT OF THE NIGHT may be more prediction than simple food for thought. It is, if nothing else, bracing theater.