Theater review: ‘The Night Watcher’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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Charlayne Woodard’s manner is so disarmingly anecdotal in her effervescent solo show, “The Night Watcher,” that it takes a moment to realize that this isn’t our best girlfriend sharing confidences from the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre but a performer whose luminous talent exceeds her limited stardom.
She begins with a tale involving another gifted African American actress, the more famous Alfre Woodard (no relation), who called her up out of the blue to get Woodard and her husband to consider adopting a mixed-race baby that was about to be delivered at a Los Angeles hospital. This would seem to be an unusual thing to urge on a colleague, but it seems that many people have had a similar desire to put Woodard’s nurturing skills to good use.
“The Night Watcher” can be seen as one woman’s defense of remaining childless. But it’s really about the many ways in which maternal love can be shown in a world badly in need of more guiding hands. Given a tastefully simple production by veteran director Daniel Sullivan on a stage with a simple chair and just the right number of suggestive background projections, this modest offering touched me with its generosity, gentle humor and grace.
Wrestling with her ambivalence, Woodard fears that she wouldn’t live up to the model of the “warrior mother” who raised her. Whatever she sets out to do, she wants to do with all her heart, and the demands of motherhood fill her with doubts. The oldest of five children, she had ample opportunity to mind her siblings. Now that she has become a successful “blue-collar actor,” she has grown fond of her domestic peace and freedom, the lazy Sundays with her husband reading the L.A. Times with their Maltese terrier snuggled between them. But when godmotherly duty calls, she answers. Her fragmentary stories, briskly arranged over two acts, depict her stepping “into the gap” of foundering young lives. There is one goddaughter from an affluent family in Brentwood who gets pregnant at 14 and comes to her behind her parents’ back for advice. An 11-year-old niece, an adopted mixed-race girl with a snarling attitude, tests her patience with remarks that range from bratty to outright racist. A child who was horribly abused by her mother begins to envy Woodard’s pampered dog. One 15-year-old, the daughter of Woodard’s late friend, reveals that she has difficulty reading but no difficulty in attracting much older men. A nephew running into trouble with the law is at a dangerous crossroads.
Woodard’s interventions are sometimes successful, sometimes inconclusive and sometimes an apparent flop. She is rebuffed by parents who resent her dilettantish concern. Most problems can’t be fixed by weekly phone calls or checks for karate school or heartfelt pep talks. Time, constancy and regular sacrifice have no substitutes.
But Woodard brings other qualities to the table, such as a solidarity with youthful struggle, a playfulness born out of pleasure and empathy and a memory of the “aunties” who made an incalculable difference in her life. Woodard’s young charges are proud that she appeared on the TV series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (though confused why she lives in an apartment and not a mansion). But her flickering fame isn’t as influential as the example she sets of someone true to herself rather than others’ expectations.
Adults in the audience will be as drawn to Woodard as her community of kids. The radiant levity of her stage deportment, the blithe way she slides into accents and adopts signature traits and the strains of songs that joyfully burst from her keep us delighted even when certain segments cry out for more tightening. And anchoring it all is our grounded host with the cultivated voice, the one who has appeared in Shakespeare, Suzan-Lori Parks, countless television shows as well as her own solo plays. Woodard the artist. It is this presence that gives “The Night Watcher” its moral weight and assures us that while we are in her company we are in the safest of hands.
— Charles McNulty
‘The Night Watcher,’ Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m.Tuesdays- Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends December 18. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/NightWatcher Running time: 2 hours
Photos: Upper and lower: Charlayne Woodard. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times