At a Loss for Words

A New Play is Raising Awareness About a Rare Disease

Looking for Words: Anna (Jordan Baker) struggles with aphasia, supported here by her speech therapist (Maria-Christina Oliveras).
Carol Rosegg
Looking for Words: Anna (Jordan Baker) struggles with aphasia, supported here by her speech therapist (Maria-Christina Oliveras).

By Gwen Orel

Published June 11, 2009.
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The thought of losing words is terrifying for a critic like myself, or for any academic, for whom articulate expression of difficult ideas is the foundation of a life’s work. “Night Sky” a play about an astronomy professor suffering from aphasia, or the sudden loss of speech and language, plays out that fear with nightmarish clarity. The late Joseph Chaikin, who founded the Open Theatre and suffered from aphasia following a stroke, inspired the play, commissioned it from playwright Susan Yankowitz and directed its premiere in 1991. The National Aphasia Association, which produces along with Power Productions NY, Inc., has named June National Aphasia Awareness Month.

As a teaching tool, “Night Sky” works beautifully, and fulfills the National Aphasia Association’s mission to increase understanding of the disorder. Without hesitation I recommend it highly for anyone who has any contact with anyone with aphasia. In its own way, it offers a curative, talking loudly about something not often discussed: theater as tikkun olam. As a play, its appeal is more limited.

Oddly, the straightforward sections dramatizing the condition and the process of recovery are so effective that they cast shadows over the more conventional family drama alongside them. Chaikin was known for innovative, highly formalized and often cutting-edge drama, but much of the play he commissioned feels schematic. Director Daniella Topol, a rising talent, mostly takes a conventional approach to telling the story, moving the characters around nicely on Cameron Anderson’s spare set. Original music by The Broken Chord Collective adds a yearning atmosphere to the story of recovery.

The play follows Anna, an astronomy professor, portrayed by elegant and affecting Jordan Baker. With an opera-singing live-in boyfriend, Daniel (portrayed with just enough angst by Jim Stanek) and a rebellious teenage daughter, Jennifer (an adorable Lauren Ashley Carter), she leaves her house in a temper to find somewhere quiet to revise a conference paper meant for publication, when she is hit by a car. Since the premise of an astronomer struggling with aphasia is on the postcard, the first half-hour of the play drags with heavy foreshadowing. “I’m speechless,” Anna says to her frustrated paramour. “That’s a new one,” he replies.

We get it. She lives for her brain, and those who live more by emotion — like her opera-singing love — often feel frustrated with what seems like coldness. We already know that “speechless” is just what Anna will shortly become; it’s very heavy-handed wordplay. Her colleague, Bill (Tuck Milligan) comes over to give exposition, let us know about her upcoming conference and demonstrate his envy.

The accident itself however is theatrical and frightening: Anna rushes out and is stopped by a loud sound, then we hear a doctor’s voiceover recounting all her terrifying new conditions. Unfortunately, Yankowitz undermines this moment by putting an aphasic patient (Dan Domingues, who plays a number of other small roles as well) onstage, haltingly echoing some of the doctor’s words. While it demonstrates echolalia, it also distracts us, as we wonder who this new character is. At times Yankowitz forces Anna’s family into inexplicable idiocy and the play seems to become a tasteless version of the game show “Password.” When Anna answers the question “How are you?” with “Goo-” Daniel hears “Glue? Goo?” and not “good.” Poor Professor Anna, has anyone ever had a family or colleague so slow on the uptake?

But once the play settles into the story of Anna’s recovery, it engages. A chess game between Anna and an aphasic patient speaking gibberish beautifully demonstrates the distance between intelligence and speech, something most people never consider. When the speech therapist (Maria-Christina Oliveras, who also plays several other small roles) has to prompt Anna who can’t remember her daughter’s name, Anna’s tearful frustration hits home. And the toll the illness takes on her family feels true: Anything that shifts the balance of a family’s organization threatens its stability. Being ill hasn’t made Anna a kinder person, just a more frustrated one, and Bill’s growing insecurity and defensiveness gain sympathy. Anna says her heart is in jail — because she can express neither herself nor her love. If Anna’s aphasic speech often feels poetic, it’s because aphasia kills cliché — cliché is worn-out speech, after all, and an aphasic patient is constantly discovering it.

The play parallels the black spaces between stars and the unknowable space in the mind. Its title applies as much to the darkness of Anna’s thought processes as to her field of study, but the parallel is more poetic than apt. To highlight this metaphor, Bill gives mini-lectures to an unseen college class in between the enacted scenes, but they are easy platitudes about the music of the spheres and other basics of popularized science, Schroedinger’s cat and assorted other snippets. His thoughts are intended to punch up the following scenes, but the punches never land. Anna’s determination to read her own paper at the conference lends the play’s second act a ticking clock, but it never convinces. Any passionate academic would care more about the research itself than the spotlight. Neither Anna nor Bill ever feels like a real academic. Bill’s notion of academic discovery is that stars, like people, can be middle-aged — that might make a paper title, not a paper. Like many playwrights, Yankowitz does not seem to understand the meat and potatoes of academic life, the push for the new, the way academic work builds on that of others and depends on specific challenge and question. The final scene, while moving, makes little sense in an academic context.

Fortunately, the play lives in a dramatic context. The brilliant Joseph Chaikin understood first-hand how losing language alters life, yet he remained in the theatre, a form that usually depends on its verbal action. Chaikin’s condition inspired Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard as well as, latterly, Susan Yankowitz for this play. Science about the brain has moved on a bit since 1991, but by putting aphasia center stage, “Night Sky” suggests that drama itself, like the brain, is more than the sum of its tools — and a story about aphasia is more than just a story about the brain. The underlying question of who we are without the tools of personality has power to tug at the heart.

“Night Sky” plays at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue, New York, through June 20.

Gwen Orel is a freelance writer on theater, music and film. She has a doctorate in theater arts from the University of Pittsburgh.

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