Monday, April 5, 2010

Sunlight at ArtsWest leaves a few things in the dark

West Seattle's ArtsWest theater purports to produce "artistic events so fiercely compelling that they require conversation." It's a bit of an audacious claim from a company that has been doing the goofy Christmas musical Plaid Tidings the last few holiday seasons. But ArtWest's recent production of Sunlight by Sharr White, directed by Vanessa Miller, accomplished the mission.

Sunlight is the story of a family torn apart in the post 9/11 world. The protagonists are a liberal college president, the conservative dean of the law school who also happens to be his son-in-law, the president's daughter/dean's wife, and the president's long-time assistant.

Director Miller coaxes marvelous performances out of all four actors. John Wray is hilariously fussy and bossy and pompous as the president, Matthew Gibbon, who has built this college out of a swamp. John Ulman is Vincent, his former star pupil who, as head of the law school, helped the government develop "guidelines" under which torture is acceptable--guidelines that led to the brutal death of a 15-year-old boy. Caught in between is Peggy Gannon, fabulous as Charlotte, Matthew's daughter, lawyer, and advisor, and Vincent's about-to-be estranged wife. Karen Nelson was incredible as Maryanne, long-time assistant to Matthew and something of a companion since the death of his wife several years previous.

While the performances were wonderful, the play has a few holes in it. The title refers to the quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who opined that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But this play takes place at night, and I don't think all the cards are on the table. Vincent's main argument in support of torture is that Charlotte worked in the World Trade Center, he didn't know if she was OK that morning, and therefore torture is always justified if we think we can root out a threat. It's too simple, and not the real reason governments take part in the practice. Neither is it believable that Matthew would completely trash his dean's office, then trip him and start a fistfight in his living room. Even if he had been drinking.

But props to White for raising the question. I expect we'll be seeing plays about torture for a while now. Last year's Wisey-Award-winning best play, Equivocation, also included torture among its many plot lines. Creepily, in Equivocation Sir Robert Cecil was a big supporter of the practice, and suggested that it might even be considered a plus on the résumé by the time the 21st Century rolls around. And good for ArtsWest to doing some interesting and challenging new work.

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