At the opening of Naomi Wallace’s Night is a Room, Liana and Marcus have what appears to be a perfect life: they married young and had a single daughter, who’s a graduate student in fine arts in Chicago; now, in their early middle age (she’s forty-three and he just about to turn forty), they have a lovely home in Leeds, England, which they redecorate every few years just for a change. She has a successful career in advertising and he’s a beloved teacher at a girls’ private school. For her husband’s fortieth birthday, Liana has come up with the ultimate surprise: she’s going to reunite him with his birth mother. Marcus was adopted in infancy by an older couple, both now dead, and Liana, in an act that seems to mix calculated magnanimity with a sincere impulse of generosity, has spent considerable time and money to track down Doré, who gave birth to him at fifteen.
Doré’s life has been very different from the complacent, upper-middle-class domesticity Marcus and Liana share. She’s lived in the same small flat for her entire adult life, filled with furniture bought for her by her father when she moved in. She’s never married, or even had a meaningful romantic relationship; she works as a house cleaner. Still, she’s got a fanciful side that utterly baffles Liana, whose pragmatic efficiency shades into the officious, with even her moments of whimsy (buying balloons for this meeting) well-planned. And while Doré is at first unsure about meeting her son, she soon is persuaded. Her only condition is that Liana let their first meeting be private, just the two of them – partly because Liana does come off as something of a well-meaning busybody, partly because Doré is a little afraid of how this moment will play out, of whether she’ll be strong enough for it.
And as it turns out, she’s wise to be afraid, because the ensuing events will destabilize what all three of them think they know about love – parental, familial, romantic – and all of their individual senses of self. All of their lives end up shifting, in ways that are truly disconcerting, discomfiting, and difficult to watch. It’s hard for an entirely domestic drama to genuinely shock an audience in 2015 – let alone to do without bloody violence, without nudity, without magical stagecraft, with the sheer force of giant, terrifying emotions and the insistence on naming and dissecting them as they wash through. Wallace, director Bill Rauch, and stunning performances, especially from Dagmara Dominczyk as Liana and Ann Dowd as Doré, pull it off. Big swaths of the play are almost skin-crawlingly uncomfortable for the audience, but not in any sort of gratuitous way; the discomfort is baked into the simple but dizzying story and the relationships depicted here.
The two women at first appear to have nothing in common but Marcus, yet as the play goes on, odd resonances and echoes emerge. Dominczyk marvelously paints a woman so confident in her skin that she’ll have a quickie with her husband as they wait for his long-lost mother to arrive, clean herself up with a napkin, and then breezily answer the doorbell and prepare to serve the tea. She’s not introspective in the least, nor is she overly interested in peering into the psyches of others, which leaves her blindsided when emotional currents start to roil. She’s not prepared for anything to change, certainly not for anyone to make plans behind her back, and once she stops being able to exert control over the circumstances, she’s incandescent with rage. You can see Dominczyk exert an almost physical effort to twist that confidence into vicious anger and hurl it outward. When Liana’s sureties crumble, so do the strategies that have gotten her through life: organization and preplanning, straight talking, and boldness.
Doré, while living an entirely different life, somehow shares Liana’s comfort in her physical self, with perhaps a greater degree of self-knowledge. She’s weird, but she has no shame or anxiety about her weirdness or her isolation; she lives as she must, and Dowd takes a quiet relish in the small pleasures and momentary triumphs of Doré’s life, without ever shying away from the difficulties of it. Doré is a person who’s always made the best of things, and hasn’t really allowed herself to dwell on the loss of her son, though she dreams of him, until she’s faced with him in the flesh. There’s a simplicity to her and an utter lack of subterfuge that can seem both gentle and casually cruel, sometimes almost in the same breath.
And Marcus (Bill Heck) has always gone along, content to have Liana make decisions. He loves her, knows he doesn’t entirely understand her, and tries not to think too much about it. He’s preferred the possibility of someday contacting his birth mother to the fact of doing it. But confronted with her, he too reacts in ways he would never have expected.
The play’s second act doesn’t live up to the first; once the relationships are reconfigured, Wallace doesn’t quite know where to go with them. The piece begins and ends with scenes between the two women, and while that structural mirror makes intellectual sense, the emotional arc of this back half of the play, and especially the final few minutes, feels unmoored from what has come before.
Still, its investigation into the ways in which love can utterly remake us, and our own hearts can confound us, is unsettling, emotionally raw, and finally poignant. The play’s title comes from a line of William Carlos Williams: “Night is a room/darkened for lovers.” That darkness – in which we may grope blindly through human relationships, sometimes unable to look ourselves or our lovers in the eye, sometimes unable to see even our own motivations and emotions clearly – is at the heart of the play.