Review of A Bright Room Called Day at the Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts

    I was delighted to learn that Sargent Conservatory directing senior Gregory Almanza had chosen Tony Kushner’s play A Bright Room Called Day for his Capstone Project. The play was the first of Kushner’s plays to be professionally produced, the last before Angels in America. I have been hearing about it for years, some from those involved in the first productions. Now at last I would get to see it. 

    As usual when writing a review, I did some research on the subject, consulting with my advisors Dr. Google and Dr. Wikipedia. Rather than offering their usual help and comfort, they revealed that I might have entered a critical minefield.

    Kushner wrote the play in 1987 for a production at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. Set in Berlin in 1932 and 1933, in the sunny apartment of Agnes Eggling, a middle-aged actress, she and her friends gather to share their concerns about the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Their political allegiances range from apolitical, Agnes herself, through Social Democrats to committed Communists. 

    Occasionally a young woman named Zillah, who lives on Long Island in the 1980s, interrupts the action, breaking whatever fourth wall a production might have, to declare her fears that Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party are becoming too much like Hitler and the German Nazis. This was, of course, the concern of playwright Kushner and the reason he wrote the play. 

    By the time A Bright Room Called Day was produced in New York at the Public Theatre, Kushner had moved Zillah from Long Island to, ironically, Berlin. She was frustrated and angry at the growing power of the Republican Party. 

    Many people liked the play and wanted to produce it. But with a Black president following Reagan, the comparison to Hitler seemed a little extreme to many people. 

    However, when Donald Trump became president, Kushner again had his Hitler lookalike. So in 2018, he rewrote the play, adding a new character named Xillah, who does nothing but interact with Zillah. Xillah is, of course, a front for Kushner himself, defending his play and its current relevance.

    So what was the play I saw in a theatrically and intellectually smart production in the 

    Emerson Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center? Given that no Xillah is listed among the cast in the Conservatory production, I assume director Almanza opted for one of the earlier versions. Reagan certainly got hit pretty hard, but a quick series of videos near the end brought us up to the recent Trumpian past. The comparisons with Hitler need no further explanation.

    Hannah Browning made sharply clear Agnes’s place at the center of her friends and her painful struggle to figure out what to do next. Jayson Heil’s Husz, Agnes’s lover, tried to help, as did her friends played by Drew Bates, Anthony Comunale, Drew Bates, Piper Murray, Paola Rodriguez Torregrosa, and Ashley Schwach. Gabby Waton-Torres as Zillah played with clarity and growing anxiety as a voice from another time. Bianca Sanborn was blessed with two fascinating roles, which she handled with perfect distinction. One was Die Alte, a strange old woman who lived somewhere in the same building as Agnes – or maybe not – and often arrived through a window, with stringy white hair (hair and makeup by Rebecca Mack) and a loose gown, a character described accurately by one reviewer as “part ghost, part menace, part prophesier.” Her other role was as an angelic visitor, perhaps anticipating Kushner’s next creation, only here it is a fallen angel, a devil come to Agnes’s apartment to invite her friends to join with Hitler and dressed with great formal elegance by costume designer Tiana Osborne, who had the correct attire for each of the characters. 

    Scenic Designer Greyson Norris took advantage of the intimacy of the Studio Theatre while arranging for needed entrances and exits, including the slightly mysterious windows used by Die Alte. Lighting Designer Spencer Roe-Weaver provided the brightness for a room called day, Katelyn Gillette’s sound design helped create the periods of the play, Will Bonfiglio and Rachel Tibbetts were the Intimacy Coordinators, Jack Kalan the Fight Choreographer, Victoria Esquivel the Technical Director, Liy Tomasic the Scenic Artist, and Amalia Perez Lam the Props Head. Lexi Sims made everything work when it should as the Production Stage Manager. 

    And director Gregoory Almanza has a capstone to be proud of. Thanks for doing this play.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Phillip Hamer
    From the left, Hannah Brown as Agnes, Jayson Heil as Husz, and Ashley Schwach as Gotchling in
    A Bright Room Called Day.