Strangers When We Meet
Of all the things your mother specifically told you not to do -- talk with your mouth full, go out with married men -- chances are she didn't mention the following: running off into the snow in your wedding dress. But if you did happen to desert your fiance at the church door and take off in a car only to find yourself several days later in the middle of a snowstorm in the Alaskan wilderness, nine out of ten moms would probably prefer that you did not seek comfort at the home of a stranger.
That's why I know for certain that my mom wouldn't approve of the heroine of Brilliant Traces (now at the Studio Theater courtesy of the Actors' Project Theatre Company). The play is about a woman named Rosannah who not only runs away from Arizona in her satin wedding slippers but, after her car breaks down, decides to knock at the door of Henry, who lives alone in a shack somewhere in Alaska. In my experience, when people end up in the middle of a snowstorm in Alaska, they have (a) fallen asleep watching The Thing, the fabulous 1951 sci-fi movie that takes place at the North Pole; or (b) they are characters in a play that throws together two people who would otherwise never have met.
There were no space aliens nearby, so when I saw Rosannah bang on the door of Henry's cabin in the opening scene, I felt pretty confident that the two young people were going to spend the next two hours getting to know one another. Her drive has been a long routine of "gas, pee, eat a candy bar, drink a Coke"; we don't find out for nearly an hour why Rosannah has taken this trip. We do learn in the first five minutes that by the time she lands at Henry's, full of caffeine, she thinks she's "awake with a capital Wah." But she then collapses on Henry's floor for a two-day nap. Honestly, it's amazing she's able to fall asleep at all.
What's also amazing about this play, which premiered at New York City's Circle Rep in 1989 starring Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson, is that the two characters are not the least bit leery of each other. Obviously they've never seen David Mamet's Oleanna, not to mention your average slasher movie. The premise -- overexcited woman in strange costume bangs on door in middle of night -- could have been ripped from any episode of the Halloween series. I mean, who's to say that Michael Myers isn't hiding his hockey mask under that bridal getup? Oddly, it never occurs to Henry for a second that letting a stranger into his house is Not a Good Idea.
Anyway, all sorts of wonderful possibilities come to mind when Rosannah's northward path crosses Henry's cabin floor on her escape from both her fiance and a relative who has disappointed her. Will one entertain the other by spinning tales of a mysterious femme fatale, as in Kiss of the Spiderwoman? Are they going to put on a production of a Greek drama, like the two characters in Athol Fugard's The Island? Maybe one character could hack the other one to death with a meat cleaver. With all that snow and no chance of going to the grocery story, scenes from the Donner Party leap to mind.
There's at least one other alternative, of course. Rosannah and Henry, like the denizens of so many mediocre contemporary plays, could simply spill their guts. The playwright who created them doesn't realize that mutual confession is the most boring of all the options open to someone who throws two people into the same room.
Playwright Cindy Lou Johnson starts off with a humdinger of a play, even if she doesn't tell us why Rosannah left Arizona until well past the point at which we care. It's a great opening, rushing into the cabin in the middle of the night and all, but nothing that happens after Rosannah's arrival is as interesting as that first bang on the door. (No, not even the use of multiple white bed sheets draped across poles at each end of the stage to suggest snow drifts, the one bit of staging that's creative.) The title, by the way, is from a poem called "Individuation" by someone named Avah Pevlor Johnson: "Let my scars leave brilliant traces." Fair warning that someone's emotional scars are going to be reopened.
Indeed, Rosannah's reasons for showing up at Henry's in full-regalia satin involve the sort of complications that are enthralling if they happen to you but stultifying if you have to listen to others go on about them. For his part, Henry has chosen to become a recluse after an experience that may seem terrible to him but which, as spelled out for us by the playwright, is unabashedly gooey. (One crucial aspect of Henry's back story involves bathing a three-year-old child in a kitchen sink, which makes me wonder if the playwright has actually ever seen a three-year-old child, much less applied soap and water to one.) Don't worry, Henry hasn't done anything inappropriate; he has merely suffered the pain of losing someone and now, like a moody adolescent, wants to shut himself off from human contact.
At any rate, the resulting drama is propelled by people you'd move away from as quickly as possible if you met them at a dinner party. Their sort of annoying behavior can be used to good effect, particularly in comedies. After all, you wouldn't want to have anyone on Married ... with Children for a neighbor. But revulsion is probably not the reaction the Actors' Project Theatre Company is aiming for. Brilliant Traces burdens its actors with having to make insubstantial characters interesting. I'm not sure that even stars as effervescent as Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson could make these people entertaining, but neither Tom Wahl, who plays Henry in this production, nor Irene Adjan, as Rosannah, gives the kind of performance that can carry off half of a two-hander, much less one as shallow as this.
Actually, I came away from the play unsure of several things. For example, why does director Amy London let Wahl waste so much valuable stage time taking off Rosannah's wedding dress after she falls asleep? (Personally, if someone fell asleep in my bed in something worn during a 2000-mile trek without washing, I'd cut if off with scissors. And believe me, it wouldn't take three minutes.)
If I were the director of Brilliant Traces, I'd want my actor to use the scene to convey some essential bits of information about Henry, who, after all, remains a cipher until two-thirds of the way through. I'd want the lighting person to use a lot more subtlety. But most of all, before I even started, I'd want my mother to suggest a better play.
Written by Cindy Lou Johnson; directed by Amy London; with Tom Wahl and Irene Adjan. Through September 27. Actors' Project Theatre Company at the Studio, 640 N Andrews Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-340-8063.
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