Where does inspiration come from? For acclaimed playwright Rachel Bonds, a simple yet disturbingly vague line from Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon”, an otherwise warm and rhythmic children’s bedtime book, served as a galvanizing moment – and the titular lightbulb – for her new play, Goodnight Nobody, making its world premiere now at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. The creepy nature of the line and the emptiness of the page fused with Bonds’ recent experiences as a new mother to help form a story steeped in dualities, balancing both lighthearted comedy with immense sadness. Much like motherhood. And life itself.
“Goodnight Nobody” finds a trio of childhood friends descending upon a farmhouse in upstate New York to reconnect after several years apart. Nan (the exceptional Saamer Usmani), a gifted painter with a “sight” for deeper and sometimes all too on-the-nose observations about people. K (Ariel Woodiwiss), a teacher and new mother, struggling to draw some sense of balance between the person she was before giving birth and the woman she has since become. And Reggie (Nate Miller), a stand-up comic whose playful outward persona slowly gives way to insecurities he’d rather keep hidden, especially from his mother.
The friends’ collective reunion and individual paths revolve around their respective connections to Mara, Reggie’s mother, brilliantly brought to life by two-time Emmy winner Dana Delany. She is the hub to their spokes, concerned mother to Reggie, sympathetic motherhood veteran for K, and artistic spirit twin to Nan. And though Mara, a sculptor, has lovingly restored the farmhouse, she finds herself unable to satisfactorily restore the bonds of friendship, the wounds of childhood, the heartbreaks of life, and the battles for sanity that these characters are suffering through.
Bonds’ dialogue is effortless and the performances top-rate, never allowing the viewer to doubt for a minute that these characters are truly friends and have experienced everything they’ve gone through. Under the steady direction of Tyne Rafaeli, each has their moments to shine, although Woodiwiss’ hilariously epic rant/loving Hallmark card to the ups and downs of motherhood is the stand-out monologue of the piece. The actors’ interactions are as natural as the farmhouse set design and atmospheric ambience, imbued with earthy wood cabin browns, realistic sounds from the surrounding woods, and even the smell of bacon during an early scene when Nan is cooking. All of the production values allow for the audience to feel ensconced, safe.
And it is precisely when the tensions begin to escalate and secrets are revealed that the farmhouse set, expertly realized by Kimie Nishikawa, collapses and unfolds at the same time, as if an intricate pop-up book, allowing the actors to move about in the nearby woods to further mine their pasts, their choices, their fears, and their futures. It is a seamless and smooth technical transition that belies the rough emotional terrain Bonds’ characters are about to navigate, messily and heartbreakingly.
Crackling humor and bracing sorrow. Real-world worries and mystical transcendence. The pursuit of art and the shackles of mental illness. The life-changing newness of motherhood and its impact on what it means to be feminine. Goodnight Nobody may have a title pulled from the lonely last line of a popular children’s book, but the play winningly examines all of this with wit, candor, and sensitivity. Now that’s an inspiration.
91 University Place, Princeton
Tickets available online at https://www.mccarter.org/ or by phone at 609-258-2787. Runs through February 9.