By Manning Harris
“Night Blooms,” the new play having its world premiere at Horizon Theatre, is going to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Do I have your attention? This statement is not so much a prediction as simply a thought I had while walking to my car after the show. But it could happen. The play is outstanding, and Horizon’s production is superb.
“Night Blooms,” by Atlanta playwright Margaret Baldwin, will run through October 24. It is part of Horizon’s New South Play Festival, now in its 12th year.
As a child Ms. Baldwin spent holidays and family vacations at her grandmother’s house in Selma, Alabama; she has used memories and associations to create a compelling comedy/drama. The time is March 21, 1965, and the place is Selma.
If you’re old enough (or are a student of the American Civil Rights Movement), you may recall that that is the date the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. successfully led a march from Selma to Montgomery. The date is two weeks after “Bloody Sunday,” when police used tear gas and violence to force demonstrators from the Edmund Pettus Bridge back into Selma. The town seemingly had the whole world’s attention at the time.
But as Ms. Baldwin has pointed out, her play is not a political drama; it focuses instead on a family—and what a family it is. Grandma Lucille (Jill Jane Clements) is obsessed with her night-blooming cereus plant, which appears ready to open its petals (which it does once a year); and she wants her family to be as loony as she seems in observing this historic event—while of course real history is occurring right outside her house.
No one shares her enthusiasm about the plant: not her daughter Ruth (Lala Cochran), nor her granddaughter Lucy (Bethany Anne Lind), nor her visiting son Clayton (Harrison Long); and certainly not Granddaddy Stafford (Tom Thon), who’s on oxygen but still manages to smoke and drink and cuss with hilarious vigor. Finally, the Stafford’s African-American maid Geneva (Marguerite Hannah) and her teenage daughter Raynelle (Brittney London) have been blissfully commandeered by Lucille to help out on this particular Sunday; and Geneva is rightfully concerned for her son, who is marching on that day.
One of Ms. Baldwin’s greatest achievements here is the seamless complexity with which she has endowed her characters. Just when you may say, “Well, this one’s a dyed-in-the-wool racist,” you find that such blanket judgments are inevitably flawed. We also learn that good intentions can quickly morph into clumsy efforts at control (as is the case with the fiery Clayton, come down from the North to show the family how things should be done). But “Night Blooms” is also about compassion and forgiveness—and is much funnier than you may expect.
I can’t say enough good things about this cast. Ms. Clements, Ms. Cochran, and Mr. Thon, for example, are giving the performances of their careers, as far as I’m concerned. Ms. Hannah’s Geneva is perfection. Ms. Lind and Ms. London are effortlessly fine. I wish space permitted me to explore the nuances of the actors’ performances. Let us praise Director Karen Robinson for her stellar work. There’s a great set by Jeffrey Weber. And I love the plant! But the evening is truly Ms. Baldwin’s triumph. (Oh, and thanks, Kenyon Shiver, for your Newscaster Voice.)
This is a “can’t miss” show; it’s gentle and powerful and creeps up on you; it even has some of the ambience of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Go and enjoy.
For more information visit www.horizontheatre.com.