By this time the Back Alley Theatre was in its seventh year of operation and we were reading more than 300 play submissions a year. But as it was still a challenge to find the hidden gems that the bigger theatres didn’t have first dibs on, I was also flying to Louisville for the Humana Play Festival and to Denver for the Prima Facie play reading series. Ellen McLaughlin, who is probably best known for originating the role of the Angel in ANGELS IN AMERICA, had a play that won the Great American Play Contest at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1985, DAYS AND NIGHTS WITHIN, and I was in the house, scouting. I couldn’t believe it, but perhaps because it was dark, dark, dark, inspired by Erica Wallach’s book, “Light at Midnight,” nobody else optioned it. We swooped in and produced the west coast premiere in 1986.
Set in a prison in East Berlin in 1950, the play is about the complex relationship between a young communist woman (Anna Katarina) falsely accused of being a spy for the Americans and her interrogator (Allan Miller), the “cold and calculating” man charged with securing a signed confession. Although the Los Angeles Times didn’t love it, everyone else did. Michael Lassell, in his Herald Examiner review, said that Anna Katarina, the Swiss actress fresh off replacing Anjelica Huston in the hit site-specific show at the American Legion in Hollywood, TAMARA, was “thrilling…her vitality and variety and mesmerizing use of her voice and body hold us rapt, as does her refusal to sign a confession come what may.” His review was rhapsodic: “The play is no longer about this woman and this man in this place and time, but about a quality of relationship, a quality of logic, a quality of power and its abuse that becomes symbolic of every such relationship in all times and places. McLaughlin’s achievement is that she has created a world of mythic density…”
The Jewish Journal said, “The impact of the writing is heightened by the brilliant performances…the stage crackles with their confrontations under Michael Pressman’s taut, unsparing direction.” He was “aided and abetted in this enterprise by his collaborators,” set designer’s Rich Rose’s “prison of the mind, on which lighting designers Leslie Rose and Ken Lennon have demonstrated just how effectively complex a lighting scheme can be even in a small theatre.”
The Jewish Journal goes on to says that the production, “reminds us how precious freedom is and how bitter is the plight of prisoners and hostages everywhere.”