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The Pros and Cons of Sleep Deprivation

by Mark Pizzato

September 10, 2015

Captions: (top) Nicia Carla as Ada having trouble getting to sleep; (box) Morayo Orija, playing Dr. Carol, advises Ada. 

“Nothing to lose sleep over.”  We say this sometimes as a measure of lesser concern.  But what is worth losing sleep over? In this new tragicomedy written by Diana Grisanti, ambiguities abound about the lead character’s inability to sleep.  Is she saintly in her profound empathy for others or pathologically foolish? Is she working through her problem using an online self-help “document” or hallucinating its author (or both)? And are the women she’s trying to help really in need of a sleep-deprived savior—or better off without her?

In an earlier incarnation as “Inc.,” Grisanti’s play received a staged reading at ATC and won its nuVoices contest last January. Now the developed version is getting a full production with a new director—Elissa Goetschius—and cast. It has become weightier than the script I recall hearing eight months ago. But it still mixes comical wonder with tragic passion through the journey of the heroine, Ada, from sleep deprivation to social action.

The awe is increased by Dee Blackburn’s surreal set design, Hallie Gray’s lighting, and uncanny yet high-tech video episodes and sounds, involving the audience directly in the dark-comic horror of Ada’s sleepless nights. A gray and white geometry unites the various areas: platforms, layers of drawers in the walls, projection screens, a desk, and a central bed with zigzag cover—all of which transforms into distinct scenes of inner and outer worlds. As Ada, Nicia Carla is onstage for the entire 90-minute show, with quick costume changes (designed by Carrie Cranford) as she travels back in time, seeking the reasons for her nighttime suffering, while guided by her self-help shrink, Dr. Carol.

Morayo Orija, playing Dr. Carol (and other characters), leads Ada on her purgatorial adventure, like Dante’s Virgil as a black mother goddess, with a magical gray streak in her helmet-coiffed hair.  She advises Ada to take a “Life Vacation” by quitting her job and to wake her body with sexual intimacy. Eventually, she pushes Ada to explore deeper realms of “guilt and regret”—from past attempts to protest the abusive hypocrisy she found as a Divinity School student and a Call Center employee, to her persistent identifications with a 19th century Catholic saint, Gemma Galgani, who imitated the passion of Christ with a bloody stigmata.

The play works best when mixing comic and tragic views of religion and feminism, through Ada’s righteous protests and yet sacrificial mistakes. It also points to other women, whether lower class or well-educated, becoming victims of persistent social structures, even as some in their gender are gaining positions of authority. Kayla Piscatelli adds spice to this mix as Ada’s comically intense boss at the Call Center and her tragically indifferent Dean at the grad school. Gerard Hazelton peppers the tragic humor, too, as a cheerful employee who tries to charm Ada, but gets more than he bargained for, or as an apartment manager who willfully ignores a tenant’s violence to preserve the bottom line. Likewise, Christian Casper evokes audience sympathy with his calls to the rental company, as an unfairly ignored tenant, but later twists that sympathy to reveal shocking aspects of two different, upper and lower class characters, with misguided ideals and monstrous patriarchal charms.

All in all, this new play has much to offer, especially for those who missed its earlier showing at ATC. I would encourage the playwright to continue mixing the political and mystical ironies, with tragicomic insights about current stereotypes of victims, villains, and heroes, through ghosts and regrets of the past. And I’d encourage Charlotte theatregoers to support such efforts in new play development at ATC with the next nuVoices contest in January.


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Tags: Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, The Patron Saint of Sleep, Nicia Carla, Diana Grisanti, Elissa Goetschius, tragicomedy, sleep deprivation

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