Perilous Night proves to be a challenge

Shirley Venard as an institutionalized, time-traveling
Mathieu Lindquist

Minneapolis's Nimbus Theatre isn't afraid of a challenge, and that's what the company has in its latest production, Lee Blessing's Perilous Night.

The Minneapolis-based playwright wrote the script several years ago, but it remained unproduced until Nimbus took it under its wing. The play offers a difficult acting task for the two female leads, who carry most of the dramatic and narrative weight.

The results are a partial success. As much as Perilous Night offers a sometimes compelling and funny take on our society's obsessions and blind spots, there are some breakdowns in the script — of both clarity and storytelling — and a considerable gulf in the acting between the two leads.

Set late at night in an unnamed mental institution, the story centers on a young, pregnant patient named Harriet and another patient, Elizabeth III — as in the third monarch of Great Britain to have that name — who has time-traveled to the past.

The first part of the show sees Harriet and Elizabeth sharing their thoughts, delusions, and histories. The play's central theme of racial identity begins to play out here. Harriet's mental condition derives from a childhood trauma involving her black father and a white woman. Elizabeth, in her actual 20th-century guise, had a black lover as a youth. His fate — and that of their child — is what triggered her journey to the institution.

Harriet is on the run and appears to be desperate to get away from the facility, for reasons that become clear as Samuel and Carver, two of the women's keepers, enter the fray. Samuel is Harriet's lover and she is pregnant with his child. Carver is in the same situation with Harriet's roommate, the only other black woman in the institution. The four plan to leave together and join a group looking to end race hatred.

The action gets increasingly violent and dire as the play travels to its conclusion, one that is actually somewhat satisfying. Blessing's script lurches along at times, sometimes spending far too much time talking when just a bit of action would serve the show better. He also commits a serious storytelling foul by having Harriet withhold important information from us until it is convenient for the plot rather than when it would be natural for the character to talk about it.

More serious is the lack of chemistry between Dana Lee Thompson as Harriet and Shirley Venard as Elizabeth. Thompson has to carry the first 10 minutes as Venard sits quietly in her room, and Venard doesn't offer much once she starts to speak. Her stumbling, sometimes awkward delivery robs several scenes of a lot of energy. The performance recovers near the end, helping to build the show's excellent final 10 minutes.

The larger issues at play in Blessing's script are certainly still tender in this country — witness the racist hatred aimed at Cheerios for daring to feature a mixed-race family in a recent commercial — and there's plenty of prodding at those tender spots in Perilous Night. It makes for a sometimes compelling, sometimes confounding, and often uncomfortable piece of theater.

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