What would you do if you had a tragedy in your life, the loss of a child? How would you go on? How would it affect your relationships, your work—your life? These are the questions posed in Camilo Almonacid’s “The Assignment,” now at Luna Stage, in West Orange, New Jersey, and as always in life, there are more than two sides to every story.
Julian J. Torres (Rafael Poueriet) is a persistent guy. He made a mistake in his youth and spent a good portion of his young life paying for that mistake. He’s now a mature man, who’s working on finding his way in a world that changed around him while he was in prison, and he’s determined to make himself, and his world, better. Professor Helen Payne (Antu Yacob) is a driven woman with a secret. Ten years ago, it was not so secret. Dr. Payne suffered a personal tragedy that affected her marriage. Her work was her savior and, from the very beginning, she sets the rules of engagement with Julian. She’s strict, she’s tough and she loves the literature she teaches to young people in this small college. She thinks she’s seen a million like Julian. She is wrong.
Poueriet’s Julian is constantly working to make himself better. While he works to forgive himself for the mess his younger incarnation made, he will never forget the impact it had on the people around him. He is semi-socially maladept–his time in prison did not permit him to refine some of the rough edges that life would have smoothed, had he been in a community rather than g-pop. Yet his spark of care for his fellow man is actually a burning ember that he uses to light that fire in others. Surprising to even herself, Helen responds to that. When she permits herself to see, parts of the man that her son may have become are visible in Julian. She begins to see a light in the forest and, from her personal wilderness, she begins to see that not all who wander need to be lost.
Almonacid’s work, directed by David Winitsky, shows us what lies behind the headlines that seem to be almost daily happenings. Look at the clever character names. Julian could be related to Caesar or any of a dozen Christian martyrs–either way, he’s working to find a way through his suffering. And Helen Payne? Hell and pain are what she’s in and feeling. Brilliant!
Julian at one point is living rough and the heart-shaped stain on his t-shirt after sleeping out is either serendipity or brilliant design. There are moments in the play that will have you leaking, so bring a hankie, and you will leave with a both-sides-now perspective that will affect everything that you see going forward. The show that I attended included a talkback with Elaine Lane, whose son David’s death by gun violence led to her founding David’s Shoes–a traveling memorial exhibit to the many who perish at the hands of people who feel they have few choices. During this holiday season, a smile, a conversation and a welcoming hand could make all the difference in someone’s life. It’s time to lift one another up.
“The Assignment” runs only through December 9. Tickets are selling out quickly, so for your best chance at the seats and dates you want, visit www.lunastage.org