Despite a few structural fumbles in the second act of Mark Rigney’s Nightjars and the occasional tendency to get knotted up in its own vehemence, the play is an engrossing, in-your-face theater piece. It’s the third of three world premiere scripts on view at Northern Kentucky University’s biennial Year-End Series (Y.E.S.) new play festival.
Curtain up on a forest canopied with stars. Seven students gather around a campfire to eat a little, drink a little, do some party drugs, engage in jesting disputation and generally revel in their trusting closeness. Six are longtime friends who’ve been night-gathering like this for years. All of them are bright, able achievers. All are also green-bleeding environmentalists at varying levels of commitment to the cause. The seventh is an Arab exchange student, a friend-in-the-making with one of the female “nightjars,” as the six call themselves after fierce, night-flying birds that devour moths in flight and are sometimes called “nighthawks.”
Rigney has adroitly individualized the students. There’s intense, frustrated, ultimately heroic Ben (Matt Bohnert) and mouthy, witty, deeply intelligent Kyle (Cary Davenport). Robin (Emma Robertson) is reserved, tense and repressed. Dawn (Rachel Elizabeth Perin) is out there, dreamy and semi-ditzy. Keri (Kaitlyn Marie Peace) is more committed to Ben than to the cause. Traci (Sara Kenny) worries about her future, her job search and her fundamentalist religion while Fareed (Matthew Geller) feels conflicted by the clash between his Muslim traditionalism and Robin’s adamant liberation.
Director Sandra Forman kept the staging simple and the pace deceptively casual as she guided these seven admirable young players into memorable portraiture as individuals and in group shots.
But Ben is frustrated. After three years of talk, marches, newsletters and participation in civil disobedience, he feels that they haven’t struck any real blows against polluters. At that moment they are trespassing on the grounds of a dusty, coal-fired facility. As it happens, they have a couple of gallons of gasoline with them — and matches. Boom.
The FBI descends. Spurred on by a chief interrogator (a fierce performance by Katie Kershaw), the feds are fired up with uber-patriotism. They are convinced that one or more of the seven caused the explosion and are determined to assign guilt. Channeling sanctioned methods from Guantanamo, nameless guards and interrogators abuse the students past the point of torture. The vehemence in Rigney’s condemnation of zealotry and in director Forman’s go-for-broke staging gets over-righteous, and the play suffers a bit from interrupted empathy.
As the first act ends, some of the students are breaking, accusing others. One confesses falsely, attempting to shift blame away from someone else. Eventually the truth about the night of the nightjars will emerge — but by then everyone will be different and damaged.
In Act One, it’s all white hats and black hats. The students are heroic, right-minded and unified — standing together as they work for truth, justice and the American way. The FBI goons are nameless, fascistic animals driven by a particularly toxic strain of jingo-bell patriotism. But that’s only Act One.
In Act Two, white and black blur and go watery gray as reality seeps in. Their solidarity shattered and their friendship tainted, the students gain deeper individuality. No longer a strike force, the authorities chatter, gossip, play cards, worry about their sex lives — and turn into individuals. The chief interrogator even has a romantic arrangement.
Much of Act Two is a collage of very short scenes shifting back and forth between the students and the now relaxing authorities, each side supplying the other with footnotes, punctuation marks and expanded meaning — much of it ironic. Neither playwright, director nor cast quite get these interruptions and overlaps nor the irony fully under control. But that’s a small quibble about an otherwise impressive theater event.
NIGHTJARS, presented as part of Northern Kentucky University's Year End Series (Y.E.S.) Festival of New Plays, continues through April 26. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.