One of the blessings of the human brain is just how much merciful work it does to soften the sharp edges of harsh memories, reconfiguring and rationalizing experiences through the lens of present-day needs and values. Take a step outside yourself, though, and critical moments past can appear so different as to be unrecognizable.
Bright Half Life, Tanya Barfield‘s unsentimental yet open-hearted dissection of a five-decade-long lesbian relationship, hits rewind and fast-forward through time to highlight and reexamine the minutiae of flirtations, pillow talk, arguments, and conversations in a marriage that only reveal greater truths in hindsight. We meet Vicky (Patrese D. McClain) and Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) in 1985 New York, where Erica—a “soft butch” extrovert with a flair for the dramatic—has eyes for Vicky, her type A boss, who operates with extreme diligence and caution as the only black supervisor in their company. Years later, we catch up with them preshow in a movie theater during an awkward valley in their courtship where the crackling dialogue has dried up but they’re not yet to the point that they can take comfort in each others’ silence. “Time’s changed,” Vicky says, “but not us.” It’s a sentiment that’s lovely and reassuring and, as Keira Fromm‘s masterfully directed production goes on to demonstrate, absolute bull hockey.
Of course they change. Over and over again, and this airtight 90-minute production from About Face Theatre puts a magnifying glass on the seemingly small choices and interactions that can cause cataclysmic life transformations down the road. As the play darts back and forth over the years, audience are prompted to imagine for themselves: How much heartache could have been avoided if one phrase had been uttered with a little less malice? What is it about about one particular night that rekindles a waning flame? It’s not a coincidence there’s so much celestial and scientific metaphor here (Erica writes science textbooks)—in this universe, relationships evolve with an infinite number of possibilities as part of no larger fate, which is both liberating and absolutely terrifying.
Bright Half Life is one in a long line of plays that mince a story’s chronology and tease out important information in fleeting moments, but few achieve the realism, comprehensibility, and emotional arc created here by Fromm’s directorial precision and performances that are simultaneously raw and polished. William Boles and Christine Binder’s minimal yet clarifying set and lighting design help keep the profound cerebral themes grounded and visceral, and McCain and Ledo intrigue and engage from curtain to whiteout. v