Although the play is nearly 30 years old, and has been produced here three times before, the current production of Night Light at Manitoba Theatre for Young People feels particularly timely.
'The play’s greatest strength is in giving that added dimension to the bully character - and in showing that the best way to deal with a bully may be to understand her fears, and so find a way to bond.' - Joff Schmidt
John Lazarus’s 1986 play (which saw its first MTYP production in 1987, and returned in 1995 and 2003) deals with issues of childhood fears, but also - and of particular note right now - with bullying.
The story follows three children, all living with their own anxieties. Six year-old Tara (Heather Russell) is bothered by the monster living in her bedroom dresser - and is terribly worried about her dad, who’s in the hospital for surgery. Meanwhile, her older brother Victor (Tristan Carlucci) is tormented daily by his school bully, Farley (Alissa Watson). And Farley is, in turn, a struggling student terrified of earning the disapproval of her engineer father.
The play’s greatest strength is in giving that added dimension to the bully character - and in showing that the best way to deal with a bully may be to understand her fears, and so find a way to bond.
It’s a simple message. And the play shows its age somewhat in that the “bullying is bad” theme, and somewhat too-neat resolution, seem a bit too simple in the era of cyberbullying - when bullying has become, if anything, more complicated and insidious. But for its intended audience (MTYP recommends it for ages five to 12, but given its basic story and take on the bullying issue, I think it probably works best for the under-eight crowd), it still has a valuable message about confronting fears - and finding a way to deal with them.
Director Chris Sigurdson’s production has been touring to schools for the last few weeks, and it shows. It’s a polished, snappy 50-minute show, kept moving thanks to Grant Guy’s adaptable set, and by the energy of the three-person cast.
In spite of the serious subject matter, they find plenty of laughs in the script. While we’re warned at the start of the show that the monster (a reptilian puppet operated by Watson) can be a bit scary, she was the crowd favourite at the school performance I saw. Watson also stands out in the role of the bullying Farley - a role usually played by a male. But she brings a great sense of intimidation to the part, while still letting us see that Farley, like her victim, is just a scared kid - and one who needs to find a way to deal with her fears.
Night Light is probably less ground-breaking than it was in the mid-’80s, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a spring break “must see” for everyone. But if you want to take your kids to a likeable story that offers some constructive ways of dealing with common childhood anxieties, it’s a “should see.”
Night Light runs at MTYP from March 28 - April 6.