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Station Theatre’s Describe the Night explores the darkness

Two white men in heavy overcoats sit at a grey table in front of a black and white background.
Jace Jamison (left) and Federico Cutolo; Photo by Jesse Folks

At the end of Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night, we are left exploring the boundaries between truth and fiction, and, in fact, whether such boundaries exist. The authentically “real” characters and the “fictional” ones are spliced together in a stunning final tableaux that bridges multiple timelines and historical events. And that’s the point of this complicated Obie-winning play. What the play may lack in textual emotion is made up for by a stellar performance of the cast in Latrelle Bright’s production of Joseph’s 2017 off-Broadway play. 

The Station Theatre’s Describe the Night is not a jaunty night at the theatre. It is a work that invites speculation in every sense of that word. Bright and company use the quiet intimacy of the Station’s space to plunge us into the stark conflicting realities of these characters’ lives in a deeply moving way.  

Rajiv Joseph’s play traces imagined moments in the life and death of real-life Jewish writer, Isaac Babel, who was falsely accused of terrorism and spying in 1939 and executed by Russian secret police in 1940. The story jumps between 1920, 1937, 1940, 1989, and 2010. And, honestly, based on director Latrelle Bright’s insightful director’s note, you may as well add 2024. Because in our post-truth multiverse, we’re all pondering, like the biblical Pilate, what is truth?

Two white men are in front of a chalk drawing of a room.
Melih Sener (left) and Jace Jamison; Photo by Jesse Folks

A few new faces at the Station Theatre give the play and the space an intangible freshness. As Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, newcomer (literally, new to the country) Federico Cutolo was dazzling. In the most moving and tense moment of the play, an interrogation scene with his friend/foe Nikolai (played with icy precision by Jace Jamison), Cutolo droops on a chair, chained by the lies that have infected the emerging Soviet Union and begs Nikolai not to destroy his stories. While much of his work was destroyed by a censorious and oppressive regime, some of it survived and the play reproduces some of the imagined — and real — consequences of the lives represented in those stories. 

Another newcomer to the Station, Helvi Witek (Yevgenia), a theoretical physicist at the University of Illinois and native of Eastern Germany, brings a sense of urgency to the role. Yevgenia is Nikolai’s wife but also lover to Babel and, in this rendering of history, mother to Babel’s child. Witek and Jamison produced an interesting chemistry together which manifests as forced at times, but forced as a natural outcome of the constricted lives of the characters. 

Melih Sener’s Vova is a sinister Soviet operative who eventually garners the title of Russia’s president, as foretold earlier in the play. Sener, another newcomer, is a theoretical biophysicist by day but, like Witek, brings a felt sense of danger and dread to his autocratic Vova. 

A white woman with red hair and a white man stand in front of a chalked drawing of a room of files.
Cara Maurizi (left) and Reece Griffin; Photo by Jesse Folks

The whole cast holds this challenging play together. Cara Maurizi’s Mariya, our more contemporary guide to this story, is a Russian reporter who also endures a moving and frantic interrogation scene with Sener’s ominous Vova. Maurizi shines in the role which frizzles with intensity.

The set is sparse, befitting a play about interrogations, lost files, and leech soup. Reece Griffin’s Feliks and Lauren Ashley Hayes’ Urzula are the two youngest characters and both stand out against the deliberately sparse black and white background. They are the youthful lifeforce stamped out when lies become stories and stories take on the moniker of truth. 

Addie Hoegberg’s lighting design is oppressive in all the right ways. Stifling bright light with minimal color and expression enhanced the mood of the production. 

Calling the shots, stage manager Chandra Galloway kept the scene changes simple but the shifting in and out of props and set pieces was, in many ways, a prominent feature of the play. Jumping decades requires scenic choreography and Galloway’s work keeps an almost three-hour production moving at an impressive clip.

Bright is, in so many ways, the Ang Lee of directing here in Champaign-Urbana. Lee, noted University of Illinois alum, is the creator of an incredibly diverse array of films including 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, followed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi. Bright’s trajectory in town has been equally and powerfully diverse. She’s done everything from Sweat, Cabaret, and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime with the Illinois Theatre, to Elephant’s Graveyard and A Charlie Brown Christmas for Parkland College, and with the Station Theatre directed plays including Fun Home and The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Bright’s collaboration, along with Stephen Taylor, with Smitha Vishveshwara’s multimedia Quantum Voyages was a delight this past spring. Her range, like Ang Lee’s, seems boundless. 

In her director’s note, Bright refers to her creative projects as stories that she guides: “A question I engage with for each story I guide is, ‘What does this play ask of me?’” This play asks a great deal of its audience. It asks us to explore the provocative intersection between silence, freedom, and lies. What could be more important at this moment in geopolitical evolution than to ask ourselves: what is truth? 

Describe the Night
Station Theatre
223 N Broadway
Urbana
May 16th, 17th, & 18th, 7:30 p.m.
May 19th, 2 p.m.
Tickets $13-$17 

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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