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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Beautiful Dark

You stay in that room all day, and go out every night and do God knows what. — Nancy
That's none of your business. — Jacob

Beautiful Dark
Logan Riley Bruner and Dana Benningfield
Premiere Stages has produced another humdinger with The Beautiful Dark by Erik Gernand, an engrossing, well-written new play about parental obligations to a severely troubled child. More widely recognized as an award-winning maker of short films than for his dramatic literature, Gernand has embraced a topical and timely subject with compassion. It could be part of the reason that it was the winner among over four-hundred submissions of the 2013 Premiere Play Festival. The Beautiful Dark follows other fine plays (Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods and Follow Me to Nellies that were also developed in the past couple of years at Premiere Stages and received commendations from the American Theater Critics Association.)

Jacob (Daniel Pellicano) is eighteen, bright, with a gift for creative writing. He has, however, returned to his home in the Midwest after being expelled from college before completing his freshman year. It is the soon-to-be-unearthed reason for his expulsion that will become the issue at stake.

Well acted and tautly directed by John Wooten, The Beautiful Dark is as filled with acts of physical tumult as it is with the various characters' states of emotional turmoil. In retreat from professional and parental guidance, Jacob gives us plenty to think about in the shadow of the Virginia Tech tragedy.

It isn't that Jacob's mother Nancy (Dana Benningfield), a high school principal, is blind or oblivious to Jacob's inability to be receptive to help. A few years ago he attempted suicide and for a while was in therapy. Jacob has self-assessed this as "not working" and has since stopped taking his medication.

Although a recovering alcoholic, Nancy is an intelligent woman, dedicated in her profession, and a conscientiously attentive mother to Jacob and to his thirteen-year-old brother Charlie (Logan Riley Bruner). In the light of Jacob's volatile swings between being either incorrigible or uncommunicative, Nancy attempts to deal with him alone when her husband Tom (Steven Rishard), the local police chief, throws in the towel and moves out. In a tough and complexly defined role, Benningfield gives a stunning performance. Rishard is also sturdy and believable as the bewildered Tom who sees glimmers of his younger self in his son.

Credit goes to director Wooten for ramping up the tension with the expectancy of violence. But the play is also filled with the ever present possibility of Jacob retreating into the dark place in his mind and where some fine writing has been known to emerge. There is no indication or insinuation in the plot that the relationship between Nancy and Tom was marked by abuse of any kind. Although in one powerful scene Tom lets us see that he was not one to condone insolence or disrespect.

Nancy is left to confront a terrible situation that she may or may not be able to handle at home. There's another storm brewing at school when she confronts Mr. Marsh (Mitch Greenberg) a respected teacher with a disturbing discovery. She also recalls that it was Marsh who was instrumental in nurturing Jacob's talent for writing.

Are there clues in Jacob's stories that can lead us back to the cause of Jacob's psychotic states? There are a couple of scenes in which Jacob, excellently acted by Pellicano, stands alone in the darkness reciting revelatory passages from his stories.

At school, Nancy is visited by Sydney (a fine performance by Cara Ganski), a young woman who claims to have been Jacob's girl friend until she says she read the play that he wrote, the contents of which are so upsetting that she brings it to the attention of the college administrators. Jacob's blisteringly belligerent reaction to everything Nancy says builds incrementally finally erupting with him trashing their home.

We will assume that set designer excellent living room setting will stand up to the abuse over the course of the run. However in complete denial, Jacob is not the only one to have reached the breaking point. Meanwhile, material evidence begins to show up to suggest that a very real and present danger may exist.

A co-production with the Kean Department of Theatre, The Beautiful Dark addresses the issues of responsibility and when to assume control and take action with convincing clarity and puts them into a compelling dramatic context.

The Beautiful Dark
By Erik Gernand
Directed by John Wooten

Cast: Daniel Pellicano (Jacob), Dana Benningfield (Nancy), Steven Richard (Tom), Logan Riley Bruner (Charlie), Cara Ganski (Sydney), Mitch Greenberg (Mr. Marsh)
Set Design: Joseph Gourley
Lighting Design: Nadine Charlsen
Costume Design: Dori Strober
Sound Design: Janie Bullard
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Premiere Stages in the Zella Fry Theatre in Vaughn Eames Hall on the Kean University campus.
1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ
908 - 737 - 7469
Tickets: $30.00; $20 for seniors; $15.00 for students
Performances: Thursday and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm.
From 09/5/13 Opens 09/06/13 Ends 09/22/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/05/13 .
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