Theater review: ‘The Man in the Bright Nightgown’ at 35below

GOOD GRIEF: Michael Lilly, as Jimmy Wharton, mourns and copes with the death of his father in the one-man play 'The Man in the Bright Nightgown.' Photo courtesy of Leo Yi

The relationship between son and father can be a difficult one. Sons who become fathers themselves can live in fear of becoming too much like their own dads, for better or worse. A moving tribute to that emotional roller coaster is on display in The Occasional Theatre’s production of Tom Huey’s play The Man in the Bright Nightgown onstage through Sunday, Nov. 18, at 35below.

The one-man show’s title is a nod to something that classic vaudeville performer W.C. Fields used to describe what he thought the specter of death looked like. Veteran actor and director Michael Lilly stars as Jimmy Wharton, who has come from collecting his deceased father’s ashes from the funeral home. He has downed a lot of beer and has passed out on the patio outside his aging mother’s house when we first see him. When he comes to, what follows is a 70-minute speech to his dad. Alternating between sincere respect, a few doses of anger and contempt, Jimmy arrives at an emotional realization that the passing not only leaves him alone but responsible for his own family and his mother. He finds himself taking the place of his father.

Lilly himself has directed several productions of the show and maintains a close friendship with the author (who updated some references in order to keep the nearly 30-year-old script modern, though its themes are timeless). Director Brenda Lilly takes the reins for this show, and the husband-wife duo strengthens the already strong script with a well-worn and weary pathos. She gets a riveting performance — as funny at times as it is heart-wrenching at others — out of Michael.

As an actor, Michael is fearless in the role of Jimmy. He isn’t afraid to wear the emotions on his sleeve, whether he is making snide comments on the insincerity of the minister’s words in his father’s funeral service, or on the verge of emotionally melting down. Michael is giddily macabre about the box of ashes, which arrived with more than a few solid and charred lumps included. He debates letting the not-quite ash remains go as they are, or intervening on behalf of everyone who might blanch at the gruesome reality by smashing the chunks with a hammer. It isn’t an easy path to traverse, but Michael makes it look easy.

The show is aided heavily by Terry Martin’s scenic design. Martin’s perfect patio includes a few random pieces of outdoor furniture, a full-size grill and a kiddie pool. Empty beer cans litter the stage as well, instantly establishing Jimmy’s state as the lights come up. Yi Lei’s subtle lighting works in perfect concert with the actions of the play, gently moving focus as Michael, as Jimmy, prowls the stage.

WHAT: The Man in the Bright Nightgown
WHERE: 35below, 35 Walnut St.,
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 18. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $18


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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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