“Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday April 20, 2014)

April 6, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
By Rahila Gupta
Performed by Jaye Griffiths
Directed by Guy Slater
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Sans Cerebral Palsy (CD), sans Tourette’s Syndrome, sans his “twisted spine,” Nihal emerges from a block of stone hewn by a surrogate mother/sculptor as his birth mother – who was not with him at his birth and was not with him when he died – watches behind a wall of protective glass. Perhaps that glass wall serves as an extended metaphor for Nihal’s ballad of becoming a young adult – never quite completely breaking through walls of disability into full normalcy.

Rahila Gupta’s “Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong,” is the compelling story of the birth, life, and death of her severely disabled son Nihal. Currently spellbinding audiences at 59E59 Theaters as part of their “Brits Off Broadway” Season, Ms. Gupta’s heartfelt story is successful primarily because of its direct appeal to logos, ethos, and pathos. These powerful rhetorical devices bring Nihal’s story to life with persuasiveness, believability, and sensitivity.

Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of “Don’t Wake Me” is Ms. Gupta’s script. Jaye Griffiths delivers this powerful prose-poem as though Nihal had been her very own child and she had walked with him every step of his brave journey. This gifted actor knows Gupta’s words and embraces each syllable, each trope with profound perspicacity. There is not one bit of imagery or figurative language that escapes her notice and her tender care.

Despite the personal nature of Ms. Gupta’s story, it is not a unique narrative. There have been many children born with severe disabilities who, after heroic struggles, have died long before reaching adulthood. Because Ms. Gupta writes with such exactitude about Nihal’s story, audience members see her narrative as authentic and believable and are able to connect their stories of loss and disappointment with that of Nihal. The playwright does not sugarcoat her story: Ms. Griffiths show’s Nihal’s mother’s “righteous anger” even relating the time she struck her son in a moment of frustration. When the script refers to Nihal having “idiosyncratic charm” and “sweet ugliness” and his mother wishing he “were syntax,” it is clear she “never got over” the tragedy of Nihal’s complicated and compromised birth which exacerbated – perhaps caused – his extensive disabilities.

Jaye Griffiths recalls Ms. Gupta’s deeply moving script with rich emotional appeal and often with unexpected humor. But it is the pathos that centers this performance and gives it its weight and broad appeal. In each “scene” of “Don’t wake Me,” the actor makes Nihal’s presence real and honest. Nihal is with his mother throughout birth, the ride home from the hospital, living at home, going off to school, and enjoying a family vacation before scheduled surgery to repair his spine.

On the night of Nihal’s death, he awakened his mother twice with complaints she was not able to confirm: Nihal had no fever, he was breathing normally, so she went back to bed hoping not to be awakened a third time. Nihal did not call her that third time and his mother found him dead when she did awaken. Jaye Griffiths relates this event with riveting detail and brings the audience to a cathartic cleansing: this is drama at its best and not to be missed.