They're not quite as pervasive as cases of swine flu, but disease-of-the-week dramas do tend to come in clusters. Jane Fonda's "33 Variations" is the most notable this year and "Night Sky," which is performing off-Broadway at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is the latest example. The ailment in question is aphasia, defined as the loss of speech caused by a brain injury.
While "Night Sky" follows a fairly predictable course, this well-intentioned work is not without merit, namely a towering lead performance.
The story follows Anna, an astronomer and college professor who lives with her teenage daughter and fiance in New York City. She exhibits all the dramatic trappings of a woman destined for a fall. Overworked and unappreciated, she runs from her home after an argument one night and is struck by a car. The resulting brain injury leaves her unable to communicate normally.
Angry and frustrated at first, she is forced to relearn speech while discovering new forms of expression and eventually gaining a healthier perspective on her life and family.
"Night Sky" was commissioned by Open Theater founder Joseph Chaikin after his own affliction with aphasia. Playwright Susan Yankowitz tackled the job in earnest, attempting to find parallels between the murky mysteries of the brain and the cosmos, but the result is alternately compelling and formulaic.
Director Daniella Topol keeps the action moving nicely with scenes blending seamlessly into each other, but she also suffers occasionally from acute heavy-handedness.
The performances are uniformly strong, especially with the outstanding Jordan Baker, who was last seen in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Three Tall Women" 15 years ago. Even when the writing turns cliche, Anna seems real. And there are moments when Baker's mastery of technique in playing this severely-impaired woman leaves the audience at a loss for words.
"Night Sky" reaches for the stars, but even with Baker's fine work, this ambitious play is more decidedly earthbound.