BWW Reviews: Charlayne Woodard Commands Stage in THE NIGHT WATCHER at Studio Theatre

Tony Award nominee Charlayne Woodard's deeply personal solo show The Night Watcher, now in production at Studio Theatre with subtle direction by Bart DeLorenzo, has moments of brilliance. From the moment she walks onto the stage, it becomes clear that she has something she really wants to say and is ready to give her all to do just that. For nearly two hours, she accomplishes the near Herculean feat of commanding the stage - never once letting in intensity, energy and conviction. It's impossible to take one's eyes off of her for even a single second. She's that kind of performer. So, why did I - upon seeing the show - feel like there were one or two key ingredients missing?

In Woodard's piece - which she wrote and now performs herself throughout the country - the premise is initially pretty clear. California-based 'blue collar actress' Woodard is happily married. She has a solid career with an ample number of acting opportunities. The couple doesn't have kids, but has provided a loving home for a least three (we later learn) cute, little dogs. An early opportunity to adopt a mixed race child leaves Charlayne initially pretty excited, but then reality sets in for her and her husband as they ponder what kind of commitment is required to take on that kind of a lifestyle shift. A well-desired freedom to do whatever they wanted at whatever time they wanted would probably not be in the cards if they chose to have children.

Yet, as time passes, 'Auntie' Charlayne takes on a 'life-shaping' role to numerous children - those in her extended family and those of close and more distant friends - that are experiencing challenges at one time or another and may (in some cases) be a casualty of parental neglect. Ultimately, she reconciles that one does not necessarily have to be a parent to have a profound impact on a child's life, no matter the situation.

Through a series of varied, comedic and darkly dramatic vignettes we learn about the children she's met and guided throughout her life. The spoiled/rich kids, the kids born into tumultuous families, and the kids searching for identity and purpose - each of them has a story. As she tells these stories, Woodard takes on the character of not only herself, but also the children and the other authority figures in their lives.

While some of the vignettes are more powerful than others - the story from which the title, The Night Watcher, is drawn is among the most powerful as is one about "Africa," a teenage victim of sexual assault - all are equally designed to show just how much Woodard cares about helping the children that already exist in this world, which to her, is just as important as being a parent.

Unfortunately, because the focus is on what 'she' did in each of these stories, the overall show is more than a bit slightly indulgent and reeks of self-importance. An apparent message of "help the kids you is really important (and see, I did just that even though I am not a parent)" can only take you so far - it's not exactly profound or revolutionary enough to make one take notice and be interested in what a person has to say when the spotlight shines solely on him/her. If it weren't for the fact that some of the children she brought to the audience's attention had really powerful stories that evoked an emotional response, it's likely I would have been over the show within the first 20 minutes.

Yet, her stellar acting was also a saving grace. I came away from the show impressed by her acting and the range of emotions she employed in a powerful yet authentic way. Yet, I was not necessarily impressed with the seemingly over-rehearsed, insanely tedious, and repetitive voice she used to take on the role of any child no matter the age or circumstance. That being said, she's a bundle of infectious energy to be sure and uses a pleasant voice when speaking as an adult or singing that doesn't get tiresome to hear. That's a good thing in a solo show.

Some solid design elements - particularly Luciana's Stecconi's photography-based set and Erik Trester's projections, which evoke the idea that this is a memory play and the children and situations that are explored will never be forgotten - add a sense of theatricality to the event. Even if Karl Lundeberg's music compositions left me wondering how they exactly added anything to the show, they are well-constructed. Erik Trester's sound design proves useful in establishing setting even if I found them a bit jarring, just as Michael Lincoln's lighting establishes mood quite well.

While this show didn't necessarily speak to me the way it probably was intended to, I do have to give credit where it is due and say that production and acting wise, it offers some powerful things to behold.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.

The Night Watcher plays at Studio Theatre - 1501 14th St in Washington, DC - through November 17, 2013. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Igor Dmitry (Charlayne Woodard pictured)

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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