WARWICK, R.I. — One actor, spotlighted on a dark, empty stage, opens the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre’s production of “Describe the Night.”
The actor is Michael Liebhauser, portraying Russian writer Isaac Babel who, in 1920, traveled with the Red Cavalry to report on the Polish-Russo War. As a writing exercise, Isaac tells himself to describe the night.
A second spotlight then reveals Sean McConaghy as Nikolai Yezhov, an officer in the cavalry who is curious about the journalist’s scribbling.
A conversation develops, which leads to Isaac asking Nikolai how he would describe the night — and raises a question in Isaac’s mind: If two people describe the same thing, is one version “more true?”
That’s just the first of many questions about the nature of truth, fiction and lies that swirl through playwright Rajiv Joseph’s “Describe the Night,” an Obie Award winner for Best New Play.
The play is framed in Russian history, and Isaac and Nikolai are based on historical figures, as are Yevgenia, Nikolai’s wife, and Vova, a young, ambitious member of what would become the KGB. No less credible, or incredible, are four fictional characters whose lives are linked with those of the “real” people over a span of 90 years and three countries.
The concept is complex, but the storytelling is superb, particularly Joseph’s concept of how young Vova rose to become president of Russia — you know, Putin.
The play jumps back-and-forth from 1920 to 2010 when an airplane carrying leaders of the Polish government crashed in the Russian city of Smolensk. There are stops in between those years, and events that are real, like Glasnost, and imagined, including a modern journalist witnessing the crash, allegedly an accident, and how that changed the course of her life.
There are coincidences, prognostications and absurdities as reality is stretched to the magical realm. Isaac’s diary, the one with his impressions of the night, keeps resurfacing in the hands of different characters.
All of this is in the service of asking ourselves what do we really know? Can Isaac’s personal reflections be true or, as Nikolai argues, are personal reflections lies? What can we believe? Is the truth “shaped” by the person or the government telling it?
The answers to questions like these have only become more fraught since Joseph’s 2018 Obie win.
There is a lot to follow, and the first act tests our patience; the entire play runs to nearly three hours. But Joseph gives us enough information and revelations to keep audiences on track.
The Gamm’s cast keeps us tuned in as well, as they embody their characters’ strengths and vulnerabilities. Director Tony Estrella and all seven actors understand deeply what their characters need to portray in every moment, be that realism or something more fantastical.
As for the stage, in the darkness, backgrounds sounds and special effects lighting gain prominence.
“Describe the Night” is an interesting, challenging play, one your thoughts return to time and again.
Performances of “Describe the Night” continue through Oct. 9 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Tickets are $55-$65 and available by calling (401) 723-4266 or by visiting gammtheatre.org/describe. Health and safety protocols are at gammtheatre.org.
In conjunction with performances of “Describe the Night,” The Gamm Theatre will host “Truth and Tyranny,” described as “a community discussion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its centuries-long imperial ambitions, and the manufacture of ‘truth’ in an age of amplified, instantaneous, globalized information and disinformation.”
Special guests are Nicolai Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, and Ammina Kothari, director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media at URI. The discussion will be moderated by Rachel Walshe, Gamm resident scholar and recently named associate artistic director.
The event will take place Sunday, Sept. 25, at about 4:30 p.m., following the matinee of “Describe the Night” at The Gamm, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. The program is open to the public at no charge, and show attendance is not required. For details, visit gammtheatre.org/shared-Sunday.