Night Sky, a new off-Broadway play, concerns a world renowned astronomer named Anna who suffers an injury to her brain during a car accident and loses her abilities of language and communication – a condition known as aphasia. I was recently invited by the play’s producer to see its final rehearsal at Baruch City College in midtown Manhattan.
I arrived at the practice space, a small classroom three stories below ground in the bowels of the city college, rather early and was asked to wait outside in the hallway until the players were ready. Sitting down in a chair, I began to converse with several big men in tuxedos, sweaty in the basement lights, who introduced themselves cordially. They turned out to be opera singers preparing for an audition in the next room. As I waited, they took turns standing, and slowly paced the hallway quietly doing vocal warm-ups, do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do and arias that I faintly recognized, back and forth, lost in thought.
Soon I was shown into the room and said my goodbyes to the hopeful singers. The room was small and dark, the players wore plainclothes, and the staging was simple and straightforward, as befits a basement rehearsal. We were shown pictures of what the set would look like – several black walls with a starscape backdrop that brightened as the play went on.
Anna, our protagonist and astronomer (Jordan Baker), begins as an ambitious teacher, writer, and mother. Her husband, we learn later, has died years before, and she lives with her teenage daughter, Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her boyfriend, Daniel (Jim Stanek). These three constitute the emotional core of the story. At the beginning, they are the typical American nuclear family: devoted to one another, but each busy in their own respective worlds, trying to balance their ambitions with their duties to one another. There is nothing particularly remarkable about their arrangement, except perhaps that Carter and Stanek play their characters almost like a father and daughter, or even siblings. One expects that the script will arrange for trouble between the two, but it thankfully never does.
Indeed, Night Sky has bigger fish to fry, and our equilibrium does not last long. Soon, a fight between Anna and Daniel leads to catastrophe when she runs from the house and is hit by a car. At this point, we begin our exploration of the human mind through the crucible of aphasia. The National Aphasia Association defines the condition as an “acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate but does not affect intelligence.”
Thus we begin Anna’s remarkable journey. She has not lost her brilliance, memory, affections, or personality in any way, but simply her ability to express them. She is still able to hum along with Daniel’s operatic arias, but the connection of the words yes and no to their roles as affirmative or negative signifiers are completely lost. Her first words to her family in the hospital after the accident are an incoherent babble.
Slowly, painfully, over the course of the play, she begins to regain her means of expression, reconstructing the broken chains of words, meanings, and associations in her head. Baker, who was so articulate and charming at the beginning, transforms herself into a person in various stages of this anguish. Her frustration feels very real as Daniel playfully guesses the meanings of words she says – wrong over and over again as she tries to intimate the most basic concepts.
Things get worse as she faces a reporter and store clerk, both of whom are impatient or frustrated with her inability to express herself. Her inability to put even the simplest motivations into coherent speech is both painful and fascinating, a dramatic and hyperbolic demonstration of the everyday struggle that we as humans have to effectively engage with one another.
I was reminded at various moments during the performance of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which he suffers a stroke and becomes imprisoned in his own body, completely paralyzed but with his mind completely intact. Bauby describes his body as a diving bell, sinking and slowly drowning the nimble butterfly of his still lucid mind. He is frustrated because his own body cannot possibly express the machinations of his mind – much less can they be transported to another.
I also thought of my own difficult experiences with language. While living in Argentina last year, I spent the first few months unable to communicate as my brain recovered the Spanish that it had buried since tenth grade. One day I spent half an hour exasperatingly trying to communicate the phrase, “Too many video games probably slow our maturity.” This is a basic concept, but I lacked the necessary words for games, slow, and maturity, making articulating the thought nearly impossible.
On various occasions in those first months, as I made futile attempts at even the most basic communication, I was received with impatience, anger, or outright disdain. I grew used to being written off by the locals as strange, an outsider, or even some being of inferior intellect, unable to say even the most basic things – like a child, perhaps, or an idiot. I am an intelligent person, I am worth taking seriously, I wanted to scream; but alas, I lacked the words.
We watch Anna experience similar exasperation. We know she is brilliant, and yet she is written off by many of the characters as the play goes on. Can’t she just say it? What’s the problem? they continually imply.
And of course, Anna herself must learn how to function in a world rearranged. She is no longer able to be the dominant force in her relationships, and must watch, helpless, as her career and family seem to slip away. Indeed, one of the smartest aspects of the script, written by Susan Yankowitz, is to see which aspects of Anna’s character – many of them negative – emerge as she struggles to recover. As her power slips through her fingers, we realize, as she does, that maybe she wielded it too proudly or carelessly before the accident. She reevaluates everything in the light of her newfound condition. The world no longer sees her as she sees herself, and reckoning with this reality is harsh and humiliating. It is also liberating.
The play’s website states that “Night Sky explores what…Stephen Hawking has called the two remaining mysteries – the brain and the cosmos.” Anna is an astronomer after all, and here is a good deal that approaches the stars, as the title suggests. The controlled chaos of the cosmos is really an extended metaphor for the human mind. Be it chaotic, be it changed, be it unable to connect in the way we so often take for granted, it does not change in beauty or value.
The sky is a beautiful mystery, continually revealing its secrets to us in new ways. So, of course, is the human mind and the ties of language and affection that bond us in the first place. We see Anna, Daniel, and Jennifer fall apart and then cobble themselves back together throughout the play, even as they struggle to communicate and face the tribulation of Anna’s condition. In the end it is a play about selflessness, and rather the mystery of human expression and human connection. That which would destroy our bonds may indeed make them stronger.
After the reading I thanked the cast for their generosity and went back out in the hall. There were more opera singers pacing the hallway, singing their arias in a low hum, as Anna had done. I wondered from what chaos deep inside these men came this music, and across what distances it had come to them, and come to mean so much. All of this from a rehearsal in a basement, some lines read aloud and singers pacing in the hall. We are indeed mysterious beings.
Find out more about Night Sky at the website.