What is truth? What are lies? How often do you need to tell a lie before it is accepted as truth? How long until a difficult truth mutates into an acceptable lie? Is history factual or subjective? These are just some of the questions that Rajiv Joseph grapples with in his terrific epic play, Describe The Night, now onstage at the Wilma.
What happened and what didn’t
Traversing 90 years of Soviet history, from 1920 to 2010, Describe the Night follows Isaac (EE-zahk) Babel, a Polish soldier and writer (brought to vibrant life by Ross Bechler), introducing the audience to a character who is both real and imagined, placed in situations both historically accurate and invented.
The very first scene sets the tone. Babel, serving in the army, meets a Russian officer, Nikolai, played with great gusto by Steven Rishard. Nikolai states, “Truth is what happened. Lies are what didn’t happen.” In response, Babel begins to tell him stories that he makes up on the spot. When Nikolai realizes that these stories are, according to his logic, lies—and not a stain on Babel’s honor but rather a mark of talent—he finds himself enchanted by the young writer and begins to laugh uproariously. A lifelong friendship begins, and the audience is on notice that the line between true and false might be thinner than we are comfortable with.
Playwright Rajiv Joseph describes the paly as “a fairy tale, a collection of myths.” To use that framework to question the notion of truth, the audience needs firm ground on which to approach the piece. The Wilma achieves that through projections of the date and time, always as all-caps white lettering on a plain black background. This and other simple yet powerful choices by lighting designer Thom Weaver help make this production a triumph.
Although the piece takes on 90 years of history, it does so in a nonlinear manner, with one event sparking another in much the way human memory works. Without rooting the audience in time, Describe the Night would be beyond comprehension.
The seats of judgment
The ensemble, who with a few notable exceptions play Nikolai’s relatives and family, are uniformly strong. Be forewarned that due to the story's time jumps, actors might play their own grandchild, grandparent, or themselves at different points. Of special note is Sarah Gliko’s second-act Yevgenia, the only character who completely looses the bonds of realism, providing the piece with the dark fairytale aspect that Joseph intends. Anthony Martinez-Briggs, as Feliks, is impressive enough that I wish he had been given the chance to play multiple roles as well.
Aside from an indicated upstage forest, the set, designed by Matt Saunders, consists of one room, with a chair, a table, and file boxes lining the walls. Multiple locations are created with the inventive addition or subtraction of a few small set pieces. As this production employs three-quarters staging, the audience lines the walls of the set from above, looking down on the action. This seating arrangement calls to mind a trial, heightening the stakes of the work by putting us, the audience, in the literal seats of judgment.
If this play had been written and produced 10 years ago, it would have been seen as an attempt to explain the Soviet Union, its need to erase history, and the power inherent in endless upheaval that allows the state to produce competing narratives until the average citizen can no longer tell what actually happened from what didn’t.
Today this play is about us as much as it is about Soviet history. Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka, a Czech émigré from a time when Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet sphere of influence, helms Describe the Night. She has successfully married her experience of oppression to the narrative of this play, giving us the space to examine our own political circumstances. Hers is a valuable and crucial act. These are easily the quickest three hours you will ever spend in the theater, and spend them you should.
What, When, Where
Describe the Night. By Rajiv Joseph, directed by Blanka Zizka. Through February 16, 2020, at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
The Wilma Theater is an ADA-compliant venue, but its narrow lobby makes it difficult to navigate in a crowd.