Anyone worried that a two-hour storytelling session about children might get saccharine can rest easy. If concern and empathy come naturally to Woodard, so do skepticism, independence and a keen sense of humor. The kids she befriends are needy and vulnerable; they can also be exasperating, rebellious and bratty. “I feel like I’m in a circus!” snaps a particularly obnoxious little girl when Woodard and her husband meet her at the airport with welcoming balloons. Another girl keeps her earphones on — she’s listening to misogynist rap lyrics, it turns out — when accompanying Woodard on an outing.
Dressed in gray trousers and a purple patterned top, Woodard slips effortlessly into the personas of these and other characters. The actress crouches to imitate a high school track star bracing for a race. She blinks, flinches and gasps to evoke a just-baptized baby. Sitting in the chair that is the set’s sole piece of furniture, she twists her fingers and scrapes the edges of her shoes along the ground to channel a teen’s paroxysm of embarrassment and angst. Her voice, too, limns multitudes: We hear the plummy tones of a proprietor of a pet boutique; the deep voice of a single dad rebuking Woodard as an interfering busybody; the slow, aching intonations of a teenage girl who has been abused.
The portraits and scenes are episodic, but the play has an affecting build, largely because the anecdotes have been deftly arranged, with strains of sadness, anger, comedy and atmospheric color creating contrasts and rhythmic shifts, as they might in an elegant essay.
Each tale cuts off at just the right, plangent moment, too, giving the stories a powerful compactness that is echoed in set designer Luciana Stecconi’s montage of picture frames on the rear wall. Most of the frames contain objects (a hair dryer, a license plate, a cross and candles, etc.) alluding to scenes Woodard evokes, and the effect is poetic and a little mysterious, like an array of Joseph Cornell boxes.
Boxes have clear borders: Relationships like ones the depicted in “The Night Watcher” aren’t so clear-cut. Nor are the emotions that accompany them: During the play, we encounter Woodard’s conflicted feelings about her non-maternal status in a world that’s full of needy adoptable kids and that reveres parenthood, sometimes unquestioningly. Various figures in “The Night Watcher” try to guilt-trip Woodard, who has a busy career and values a certain amount of freedom, into procreating or adopting. That initial “Out of the blue” locution introduces her account of a phone call from a fellow actress attempting just such emotional blackmail.
But don’t children need support from friends, confidants and advisers, as well as from parents? Isn’t there a vast amount of need in the world, requiring different kinds of ministrations? As “The Night Watcher” conjures up its vivid scenes and characters, it explores these questions, becoming a broader meditation on the responsibility we all owe other people.
Wren is a freelance writer.
The Night Watcher
written and performed by Charlayne Woodard. Directed by Bart DeLorenzo; lighting design, Michael Lincoln; costume design, Brandee Mathies; composer, Karl Lundeberg; projection design, Erik Trester. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: $39-$59. Through Nov. 17 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.