BRILLIANT TRACES, Open Door Productions, at Cafe Voltaire. It’s clear why this troupe of Oberlin College alums was drawn to Cindy Lou Johnson’s one-act. A combustible study in dead-end desperation, this oddball romance offers meaty histrionics, poignant metaphors, and–since the setting is a snowbound cabin–some false retreats amid the lovers’ true advances.

Henry is an oil-rig cook who fled to the middle of nowhere to escape a searing memory. Still wearing her bridal dress, Rosannah stumbles into his cabin after driving 3,000 miles–from Arizona to Alaska–to escape a hollow marriage and the feeling that she’s “indistinguishable” from other vacant souls, like her fiance and her father, who has Alzheimer’s. After Rosannah awakens from a two-day sleep, she and Henry squabble to conceal a fondness they fear. Finally, as is de rigueur in confessional plays, they forgive each other as only perfect strangers can.

Gregory Copeland’s earnest staging shows how the misfits’ emotional whiteout matches the blizzard outside. But it doesn’t generate the momentum to distract us from the play’s contrivances: we must never glimpse how neatly one character’s key fits the other’s lock. Joshua Grubb and Rachel Claff are strong at showing decent folk unhinged but less skilled at building these loners’ eruptions and at conveying the play’s quirky humor. Their chief mistake is to drag out revelations in order to expose the characters’ denial, which drops energy that can’t be restored by the next eruption.

–Lawrence Bommer