Maria Irene Fornes uses a remarkably simple technique to create her beguiling plays. She visualizes a character in extreme detail until this creature of the imagination is as vivid to her as a real person. Fornes then plucks a sentence at random from a novel and uses it as the character’s first line of dialogue.
I attended one of the workshops where she teaches this technique; it works wonderfully. Once the dialogue starts flowing, it’s hard to shut it off. Words just gush from the imagination, expressing ideas and emotions that come as total surprises.
The problem is, a lot of garbage comes out with the good stuff. Fornes merely teaches how to unlock the imagination and produce original dialogue; shaping that dialogue into a play requires another step, a crucial, private step that transforms the raw material into drama.
And that is the step that Cindy Lou Johnson skipped when she was creating her sophomoric little play, Brilliant Traces.
Johnson must have used Fornes’s technique, or one very much like it, for Brilliant Traces begins with a wonderfully startling dreamlike image. As the wind howls outside, someone starts pounding on the door of a remote, ramshackle cabin. “Let me in! I’m a person in serious trouble!” a woman’s voice cries. Suddenly, the door bangs open and in steps a young woman–wearing a wedding gown. A figure shrouded in a blanket rises from the bed and confronts her. The play begins.
The beginning, steeped in mystery and promise, is original indeed. Outside the cabin, we quickly learn, is an Alaskan snowstorm so fierce that the sky and the ground become a uniform white, which quickly disorients anyone who tries to walk in it. Yet this woman, wearing only a wedding gown and a pair of flimsy satin shoes, has somehow found her way to the only cabin within miles. What happens next?
What happens next is 100 minutes of inane, repetitious dialogue that vacillates between mawkish sentimentality and noisy argument. Listening to this drivel is like being trapped with a babbling drunk, and to make matters worse, the dialogue in Griffin Theatre’s production of the play is delivered by two actors who have confused volume with technique. When the dialogue becomes stupefying, you can count on them to start bellowing, as if noise will somehow create the drama lacking in the play.
Brilliant Traces might have been saved by top-notch acting. The play received a respectful review in the New York Times when it was mounted in New York two years ago with Piven Theatre Workshop’s Joan Cusack and Steppenwolf’s Kevin Anderson. But the two Griffin Theatre actors–Eric Zudak and Jean Elliott Campbell–stick too close to the dialogue. Under the direction of Richard Barletta, they don’t come up with any stage business to add depth or coherence to their roles. This quickly reveals the inanity of the play, and Bitter Traces bogs down in phony angst and lame humor.
For example, Henry Harry, the man who lives in the cabin, puts Rosannah’s satin slippers in the oven to dry while she sleeps for two straight days in his bed. He forgets about them, turns the oven on, and broils them to a crisp. At least that’s his first explanation.
In fact, he’s still mourning the death of his small daughter (in an accident so ludicrous it verges on a spoof of soap-opera melodrama). It seems the girl used to play with a doll that had tiny little shoes–just like the ones Rosannah is wearing when she arrives. “I had no choice,” he finally screams at Rosannah. “I just put them under the broiler and put it on high heat. . . . I cooked them on purpose. . . . I just wanted them out of my sight.”
That’s the high point of the action. The rest of the dialogue seems to consist of whatever garbage tumbled into the playwright’s mind along with the play’s initial arresting image. In fact, some of the early moments look like a very bad imitation of Fornes’s plays. In one wordless scene, for example, Henry sits next to the bed, intently watching Rosannah sleep. The scene is a near reproduction of a brief, silent scene in Fornes’s Abingdon Square, in which a young woman attracts a longing gaze from the older man she eventually marries.
And as though trying to imitate Fornes’s talent for poetic condensation, Johnson packs her play with portentous but obscure lines. “I am . . . I am . . . I am . . . I am the prettiest girl you have ever seen,” Rosannah shouts in her sleep. Several times she refers to her fear of insignificance. “I am not indistinguishable,” she screams at Henry in one of the many outbursts that punctuate the monotony. And at another point she describes, in mysterious tones, that while driving her car to Alaska, she kept thinking, “I am moving much faster than this car that carries me. I am traveling faster than sound or light. . . . I thought, surely I will fly right through this windshield. Surely I will hurtle into space.”
Brilliant Traces is supposed to be about alienation and the difficulty of connecting with other people. The title comes from a poem by Avah Pevlor Johnson called “Individuation”: “Let my scars leave brilliant traces, / for my highborn soul seeks its hell– / in high places.”
But the scars that Johnson assigns her characters verge on the ridiculous–they rob the play of any brilliance promised in its first two minutes.