Theater review: The Man in the Bright Nightgown at 35below
It’s a well-known fact that any play that opens with an homage to Little Big Man has an excellent chance at success.
Such is the case for The Man in the Bright Nightgown, a one-man show that capitalizes on the potential set up by riffing on the Arthur Penn film with an engrossing subsequent 70-minutes that elapse in what feels like half that time.
A feat of writing and acting, as well as direction to ensure an impactful audience experience without other performers to help carry the load, Tom Huey’s insightful dramedy gives Michael Lilly a terrific opportunity to showcase his talents in the intimate 35below space.
As drunk, foul-mouthed Jimmy Wharton, Lilly masterfully unfurls a string of stories, anecdotes and confessions — all aimed at his father, whose funeral he attended earlier that day. True to the gallows humor suggested by the work’s title (W.C. Fields’ euphemism for death), much of the dialogue is darkly comedic, and though Lilly excels at delivering the borderline depressed character’s numerous jokes, he’s likewise deft at selling the occasional breakdown.
Moving between lawn furniture, empty beer cans, and other obstacles in his piedmont North Carolina backyard, carefully orchestrated by scenic designer Terry Martin, Jimmy paints a vivid portrait of his father while slipping in his fears of an existence without his namesake.
Helping hone a consistent audience connection to the material and performer is the direction by Brenda Lilly, who keeps her husband in regular enough motion and focusing on different lines of sight in order to keep interest from lagging — which very well could have happened in lesser hands.
Though Huey’s script flows naturally from one subject to another while remaining rooted to the central theme, there’s some discrepancy in regard to the timeline. The action is set in the present and Jimmy mentions there being “an app for everything,” but also refers to a tattoo his father “got in Vietnam,” suggesting he served there. That chronology generally jives with the ambiguous age of Jimmy, a grandfather seemingly in his 60s, but a 25-year-old memory of his father telling him he’s too young to drink alcohol might not.
Much like Jimmy is quick to jump from a painful memory to one he can more easily stomach, the potential hiccup doesn’t come close to derailing The Man in the Bright Nightgown’s momentum — certainly not with the Lillys at the helm. Nothing could stop their accomplishment on opening night, not even when Michael appeared to place a pair of rubber gloves on the wrong hands, yet carried on as if nothing was awry and arguably added another layer to Jimmy’s inebriated woes in the process.
The Man in the Bright Nightgown runs Nov. 2-18, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org
(Photo courtesy of Occasional Theatre)