A Billion Nights On Earth, And Beyond

 Image courtesy International Festival of Arts & Ideas. 

Image courtesy International Festival of Arts & Ideas. 

The girl is watching for something from an attic window. Toys, boombox, pastel blue wall all left behind her for a view of the cosmos. Blue-and-white striped pajamas alight with magic. A big black telescope stands at the ready as her tool of choice. She calls over her dad to share the news: there is a comet soaring through the sky.

So unfolds A Billion Nights On Earth, which runs through Saturday evening through the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Written by and performed by a spellbinding cast, A Billion Nights On Earth focuses on a child (Coralie Holum Lyford) and father (Michael Fegley) as they dive into worlds foreign and fantastical, without ever really leaving their home.

Conceived by visionary team Thaddeus Phillips and Steven Dufala, A Billion Nights on Earth opens on Willow (Lyford) and her father (Fegley) on a night that should be like any other—but is not, because Willow has lost a plush whale that is her favorite stuffed animal. Unable to fall asleep, she makes up games for herself, then watches as her father tries to calm her into sleep. Nothing works: without the whale safely by her side, dreamland will have to wait.

In the audience, children and parents surely feel that pain: they too have misplaced stuffed toys, beloved heirlooms, dolls that had their own complex life stories. And indeed, they are with Willow as she travels downstairs for a glass of milk, hand in hand with her father, and is transported to another dimension through the gleaming light of the refrigerator.

It’s a magical moment that, as critic Jason Fitzgerald has noted, blends “The Chronicles of Narnia and Go the F**k to Sleep:” as the refrigerator opens it begins to glow, and as it glows the two go into the light. How could they not?

What follows is a journey that defies location—Willow and her father don’t just travel together, but trade roles, flip-flopping child to parent as they rediscover the wonder and expanse of young imagination. Thanks to light designer David Todaro and composer Juan Gabriel Turbay, the sense of something fantastic doesn’t just live within the actors, but spreads through the whole theater, wrapping them in wonder as they encounter spectacle on spectacle, the weird and whimsical things that can only exist in one’s imagination.

As Willow, Lyford is a powerhouse, enchanting the audience as she mourns the loss of her whale, then waltzes around the stage—or is it to the four corners of the earth?—to try to get it back. Her father, more pensive, remains an enigma. He is quieter, sometimes so within himself that we can’t quite tell what he is thinking. At times, the magical, through-the-regrigerator world gives us more clarity than the real one. We worry that he’ll be okay after the show is over, and the lights have gone down.

And yet, it seems to fit with the ultimate question the show asks us: do we ever, truly, have to grow up?

Part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, A Billion Nights on Earth runs through June 16 at The University Theatre, 222 York Street. For tickets and more information, visit A &I’s website or call (203) 498-3772.

Nadia Gaskins