Theater is a medium that allows metaphor to really breathe, and Elizabeth Harris’ play does just that. The well-established Cincinnati playwright’s collaboration with Homegrown Theater proves to be a provocative, cerebral and often painful experience. The company, featuring local actors, writers and musicians, has been a Cincy Fringe performer since 2012 and prides itself on challenging and deconstructing societal norms. Night Walkers is their latest boundary-pushing spectacle, a script dealing with issues of feminism and sexual abuse. It invites and challenges audiences to ponder the expectations and pressures put on young girls and women, as well as the horrors often ignored in the night.
Written and directed by Harris, “Terror is beauty” is the refrain that permeates this meditation on childhood imagination and the artificial construct of adulthood. Told in a stream of consciousness, Harris’s play depicts Abby (Leah Strasser), a young girl victimized by her sexually abusive Uncle Roy (Bob Allen) and Aunt Lilly (Kathy Labanz), who not only denies her husband’s transgressions but forces societal expectations of women on Abby. The story escalates gradually, culminating in a crescendo of emotion and an ambiguous catharsis.
The actors fearlessly expose themselves to the audience like a raw nerve. Strasser is the heart, soul and guts of the show, literally stripped bare as Aunt Lilly removes her clothes bit by bit, but more importantly she shows an unparalleled degree of vulnerability. Allen is walking dead; painted up like an ashen ghoul, he prowls the stage with a horrible grandiosity. Labanz, meanwhile, harkens to the subversive ambience of David Lynch films with her 1950s housewife dress and stoic demeanor.
Night Walkers is performed in a sparse setting, with only a bed, a desk and the skeletons of doorframes painted in pinks and whites. The music, as well, is minimalist, retreating into ambient noise only to explode in claxons and alarm bells. The result is a Kafkaesque tone poem, with the actors repeating many of the same lines almost as mantras while reciting allegorical lines from the book Bambi, positioning Roy as the hunter and Abby as the parentless prey.
Night Walkers is not a traditional play, and it’s hard to recommend. It is often sexually explicit and purposefully discomforting, playing upon the fetishizing and exploitation of the female body and especially the young in both the media and by those who would avert attention. Still, it accomplishes exactly what Harris set out to do — to provoke thought and feeling, however melancholic.
NIGHT WALKERS will be performed 9:15 p.m. on May 30, 8:45 p.m. on June 3, 8:30 p.m. on June 5 and 7:15 p.m. on June 7 at Art Academy Auditorium (1212 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine).