Ten years ago this summer, on a hot August afternoon, a massive multi-state rolling blackout hit the electrical grid of the Northeast and Midwest. Some 55 million people in eight states plus Ontario lost power for periods lasting from seven hours to two days. In a digital era when human communication was already being conveyed via e-mails, IMs and pixels rather than hugs, smiles and face-to-face conversations, we were suddenly forced to fall back on a more spontaneous, problem-solving, “analog” way of functioning. In the imagination of actress, screenwriter and first-time playwright Mozhan Marnò, times like that are when the truth will out — sometimes painfully, but not without rewards.
That in a nutshell is the theme of Marnò’s beautifully written new drama When the Lights Went Out, which opened on July 17 and will continue this week on the Vassar College campus. It’s the second Mainstage production in the 2013 summer season of Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater, renowned as a fertile proving ground for the workshopping of future Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Plays seen at Powerhouse are often still in a fairly rough stage of development, but this one seems already highly polished and nearly ready for prime time.
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to call When the Lights Went Out a minor modern classic in the making. With few exceptions, the dialogue seems realistic but sounds lyrical; the characters are complex, relatable though not always likable; and the play as a whole effectively conveys the Big Themes of love and loss and acceptance, and the courage that it takes to be authentic, without ever feeling didactic or formulaic. It hits all the right notes for a satisfying evening of theater.
The 2003 blackout is the common challenge that brings New Yorkers from many backgrounds together and forces them to talk to each other, as well as the catalyst that prods each of the six main characters to confront the calamities in their own pasts. Actually, it’s fair to say that there is a seventh main character: New York City itself, which emerges as a fragile and lovely experiment indeed by the light of stars and candles, its diverse people pulling together to escape stuck subway cars and share stockpiles of food about to spoil. And finding one’s sense of place in the world is another of those themes that never grow old resonating through When the Lights Went Out.
At the center of the stage, and the heart of the drama, is the upscale apartment of a professional couple reaching retirement age: the prickly, mercurial Diana, played by Laura Innes (ER), and the more genial and grounded Raymond, played by Cotter Smith (Next Fall, An American Daughter, Burn This). The cancer death of their only daughter in her early 20s, and their differing approaches to grieving her and moving on with life, have driven an icy wedge between the two that in the course of one night without electricity could lead to divorce or deeper understanding.
Their late daughter’s best friend Iran, played by Sheila Vand (Argo, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), a young woman born in California to Persian parents, has a job that takes her all over the world, with no permanent home. Stranded in Manhattan by the blackout, she turns down an invitation from Raymond to visit Diana. Instead she spends an adventurous night alternating between being strongly attracted to and defensively pulling away from Nigel, played by Clifton Duncan (Elementary, Lost in the Stars), one of her former college professors whom she encounters on the subway. Nigel’s family, including a developmentally disabled sister, are Nigerian immigrants to England, and he still has a wife across the Pond; but he seems to have fallen irrevocably under the spell of the City that Never Sleeps. Iran and Nigel’s wanderings through the streets, parks and cafés of the City are staged on the apron and the peripheries of the main set.
Then there’s Hind, played by Lameece Issaq (Food and Fadwa, The Fever Chart), Diana and Raymond’s Iraqi housekeeper, who came to New York seeking surgery for her young son Majdi (T. J. Rossi) to correct a congenital spinal abnormality attributed to chemical spills from the Gulf War. Stuck in the elevator — perched atop the main set — when the power fails, she spends the hours until her rescue reliving past conflicts with her husband back home about how best to help Majdi, moments of fun with her sly, precocious son and the harrowing experience of his operation.
By the end, of course, all three stories converge; and though not every issue is resolved, there are moments for each principal character when the lights figuratively come back on. Rounding out the cast are Michael Braun (War Horse, Fires Are Confusing) and Russell G. Jones (The Power of Duff, Ruined), both brilliantly chimeric and often very funny indeed in multiple minor roles. A spirited improvised hip-hop dance number in the streets, featuring 9-year-old Rossi along with Braun and Jones, just about brought down the house.
Kate Whoriskey (Ruined, The Miracle Worker, Fabulation) directs, with a clear appreciation for the play’s finely wrought language and deft use of incidental detail to convey large concepts. The action swirls around Dane Laffrey’s clever multileveled set in a way that draws the viewer inexorably into a place that we think we all know, transformed by disaster into another dimension where magic of sorts becomes possible. It’s an evening worth reliving — especially in the Powerhouse Theater’s air-conditioned comfort.
When the Lights Went Out will be performed Wednesday, July 24 through Saturday, July 27 at 8 p.m., plus 2 p.m. matinées on Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $40, and can be obtainted by calling the Powerhouse box office at (845) 437-5599 or visiting https://powerhouse.vassar.edu/boxoffice.
When the Lights Went Out, July 24-28, Wednesday-Sunday 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m., Powerhouse Theater, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5599, https://powerhouse.vassar.edu/boxoffice.