Last January, a flurry of Internet articles announced that a wobble in the Earth’s axis meant zodiac signs had shifted. Watery Pisceans should now designate themselves fiery Aries. Earthy Taureans had become airy Geminis. Sylvan Oswald’s Nightlands, produced by New Georges at Here, takes place in Philadelphia, 1963—a time in which, the play argues, star signs were more stable, yet everything else was in flux.
Ivy Silver (Rachel Leslie), an African-American astrologer, communicates messages from the heavens on a community-access radio show. Disconsolate Jewish housewife Netta Klein (Polly Lee) comes to her home seeking first advice, then instruction, then romance. As Netta and Ivy tune in to the music of the spheres, the rest of Philly listens for the city’s racial tensions to explode into violence.
Oswald is a compelling and compassionate writer, but like the Earth, this play is wobbly, too. The script teems with poetic utterances, such as when Netta murmurs of the “nightlands” in the “enormous bluepurple sky.” These literary flights are nice enough, but they’re not organically welded into the script or wrung from character. Director Tamilla Woodward has pared the setting down to just a couple of chairs and a backdrop of platforms that move in and out as needed. The actors rely on mime to delineate props and wigs to summon character, a shorthand that isn’t always effective.
Indeed, the play’s scope and the director’s briskness render the relationship at its center in a somewhat cursory fashion. You don’t need a horoscope to know that at this historical moment an affair between two suburban women, one black and one Jewish, won’t end well, but this star-crossed love deserves a more thorough charting.