Smile Politely

The magic of A Darkling at Nightfall hits close to home

Directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon and performed by Illinois Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, A Darkling at Nightfall tells the story of Evren Andraste, played adroitly by Kim Fernandez, who is an anomaly in her universe. Evren is a half-human, half-elemental woman who was raised in the wild by her father, a primordial forest spirit and mythical storyteller. As climate catastrophes threaten their survival; however, Evren must harness her dual identity and appeal to the cold heart of mankind, faeries, and Darklings before it’s too late.

In essence, Backstrom channels our current climate crisis through the lenses of feminism and fantasy, and what she presents is — in a word — mesmeric. With eight chairs set in a wide semi-circle facing the audience and two screens displaying vibrant set design images, Illinois Theatre immediately set the stage for magic.

Strangely enough, when trying to relate the experience of Backstrom’s show, I was immediately transported back in time. Flashback to elementary school, the day my class took a field trip to see a stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. I had seen the film before, but I had no idea the movie also existed as something my teachers called a “play.” Up until this time, I had only ever heard the word “play” in the context of dodgeball. Imagine my disappointment, then, when our field trip turned out to have nothing to do with chucking foam balls at that one kid who snitched on me for the pack of gum I had stashed at the bottom of my backpack. I guess you could say I was skeptical. When we arrived to see the show, I sat down on a lush red, cushy foam seat facing a proscenium stage. Still skeptical. Then, all of a sudden, brilliant lights flashed from above, illuminating the stage and cuing the start of not just a “play,” but an experience. A story. Fantastical characters came alive before my eyes to enact a struggle I felt deep within myself — a struggle for brains, courage, and heart. The universality of the story, as fanciful as it was, transformed me. It moved me. I had never been so immersed watching anything in my life, until I saw A Darkling at Nightfall.

Flashforward to 2022. The moment I took my seat in the open, surreally lit stage of Krannert Center’s Studio Theatre, I realized I was watching something special. The room filled with the meditative sounds of pan flutes, woodland ambience, and soft technological beeping long before the actors took stage. Then, the actors arrived, dressed in an anomalous array of whimsical patchwork dresses, tailored blazers, and fur-like coats.

The moment Backstrom’s characters began to speak, I was hooked. Backstrom’s dialogue was equal parts rhythmic, musical, and evocative. Even the stage directions, read emphatically by Destiny Jording,  hit me like poetry. The actors’ lines teemed with assonance, alliteration, and vivid imagery, with characters’ dynamic personalities shining through every word. Abbas Samar, played by Jaylon Muchison, evoked the devious determination of unchecked power while Darkling, played by Joseph Primes, captured the stern-yet-loving tone of a wise father. As an audience member, it was a unique experience seeing a show that is still in the process of “workshopping” its production. I felt pride in knowing that each reaction I had to a certain line of dialogue could contribute to the next interaction of the play.

Despite the earnest invocation of these characters, A Darkling at Nightfall was never at a loss for lightheartedness. There were many moments throughout the play, often involving Evren’s playful nature and the oblivious integrity of Noah Smith’s Liridon Sterling, when I found myself laughing into the sleeve of my shirt, afraid that the person next to me would look at me like I was crazy.

This enjoyment, however, would be short-lived when the reality of the play’s antagonist came to light. A Darkling at Nightfall, Backstrom shared in a recent interview with Lisa Gaye Dixon, “is about the death of our planet and our capacity to take personal responsibility for the conditions in which we as a global community live or die.” Despite the gravity of this narrative core, Backstrom is far from hopeless.

Backstrom also shared a hope “that this audience, these actors, this director, the producers, the stage manager, they all go home at the end of every night feeling like maybe, just maybe, they got some magic.”

That magic definitely rubbed off on me, because just like with The Wizard of Oz, I will never forget seeing this play.

This workshop-style production of A Darkling at Nightfall by Mallory Raven-Ellen Backstrom was presented by the Inaugural Daniel J. Sullivan Playwright-in-Residence Program.

A Darkling at Nightfall
September 21-23
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Studio Theatre
500 S Goodwin Ave

Top photo from the Illinois Theatre Facebook page.

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