The Wilma Theater begins its 26th season with its production of Night and Day, Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard’s sophisticated, cynical account of wartime journalism.
At a time when journalistic integrity is at a crisis point and the media influx of wartime images of violence serves to both incense and desensitize a divided democracy, Night and Day provides an opportunity to explore the rationale, reality and, to some degree, the ridiculousness of the fervor with which reporters pursue a story. The play challenges the notions of both freedom and the invasive nature of the free press.
Stoppard received an Oscar and mainstream acclaim with his screenplay for Shakespeare In Love. His success, however, has its roots in journalism. He began his career at the age of 17 as a reporter for England’s Western Daily Press, and worked local beats for the next six years before dedicating his life to playwriting. It’s easy to see the influence his journalistic experience lent to Night and Day as the characters construct passionate arguments for the right to free expression and the servitude of the free press.
Night and Day is set in the late 1970s in Kambawe, a fictional African country on the verge of an impending war between their leader, President Mageeba, and head of the Adoma Liberation Front, Colonel Shimbu. Two correspondents and a photojournalist converge on the home of a British mining magnate, Geoffrey Carson, aptly played by Michael Rudko, in the hopes of using his telex machine, a primitive version of the fax machine, to transmit their stories on the escalating conflict to The London Globe.
Dick Wagner, played reprehensibly by Richard Sheridan Willis, is a smarmy character whose egotistical reporting style (dubbed Wagnerian journalism by the others) collides with the youthful and idealistic approach of Jacob Milne, righteously played by James Ginty. Photographer George Guthrie, in a silent standout performance by Scott Sowers, represents the moral medium in his pursuits to present the face of the uprising.
A complex subplot rewards audiences with the impeccable performance by Carla Harting as Carson’s sexually explicit and emotionally repressed second wife. Her scotch-induced, yet lucid tantrums on machinations of the media contradict her instability and vulnerability in matters of the heart. The way her character relates to the central story may be a bit obscure, but she certainly provides much needed comedic color with her side comments and outbursts of Beatles’ lyrics.
Its title may be indicative of Stoppard’s intentions to stage the play in two distinctly different halves; the first has everyone’s judgments clouded by the political and social temperaments of the situation, as well as the purpose of the journalistic enterprises they represent. In fact, the set design was infinitely more interesting than the play itself prior to the intermission.
Then, in the second half the characters are forced to contend with their consciences as the revolution ignites and one of the categorically good guys has fallen victim to both the struggle and his journalistic endeavors. It is here that rhetorical rambling is abandoned and the versatility and energy of the actors is allowed to shine through. However pertinent and timely the subject matter may be, the production itself lacked an element of cohesiveness, which makes for a profound theatergoing experience. Still, Night and Day manages to uphold the Wilma’s legacy of producing vibrant and provocative theatre.
Night and Day runs through Oct. 31 at the Wilma Theater, at 265 S. Broad St. For ticket information, go to www.wilmatheatre.org.
Brooke Honeyford can be reached at email@example.com.