Luna Stage presents a powerful play that deserves to be seen
It’s difficult for me to write a review about a play when I want to use all the superlatives I can without my review looking like a press release. Such a show is The Assignment, a new drama by Camilo Almonacid being presented at the Luna Stage in West Orange. Mr. Almonacid explores the effects of gun violence in a series of scenes that go beyond the usual dichotomy of hero and villain, victim and perpetrator that so often appear in other stories on the subject. He creates a play that evokes understanding from its audiences, a rare trait in plays of this nature. It is a powerful piece that deserves to be seen.
The 80-minute play is a series of interactions between its two characters. Julian J. Torres (Rafael Poueriet) is a 40-something man who has been given the opportunity to attend college. Julian is as eager and as innocent as a puppy in this new environment. His opposite number is his English composition professor, Helen Payne (Antu Yacob). Emotionally opaque, with a reputation for toughness, she doubts that Julian will be able to last out his first term much less graduate. Each has been touched by acts of violence resulting in death. As much as the play deals with the evolving relationship between the teacher and her student, it also delves into the question of how to resume living after
experiencing an act of senseless violence.
What is impressive about this play, aside from its characters’ distinctive uses of language and its clear love of the power of good writing, is its silences. While you may wonder at times if the characters are telling each other the truth, it is watching them in their brief moments alone that wordlessly tell the audience far more about themselves than words alone could convey. Mr. Almonacid is a writer who can provide such moments. Mr. Poueriet and Ms. Yacob are actors with the skill to use them wisely. Director David Winitsky is a director who can skillfully fold those moments into the totality of the play. They are artists to be treasured.
David Goldstein’s set, bordered by stacks of books of all sorts — fact and fiction, paperback and hardcover, classic and contemporary — morphs into various rooms at the university and living spaces in Helen’s home with simple rearrangements of a table and chairs. It is enhanced by the evocative lighting of Jen Fok and the sound design of Megan Culley.
The play’s title might lead one to think that the reference is to an exercise handed out to a class, one which unlocks revelations about student as well as teacher. Yet I believe the assignment of the title is a more profound one: to find a way to live in a world where safety is not assured, to deal with the consequences of violence if and when they occur, and to obtain a faith in the power of life, bolstered by friendships, in a world where death is the one constant. The Assignment asks much of its audience but it is worth the time and effort for the audience to grapple with this play. I highly recommend seeing The Assignment at one of its five remaining performances.