Entertainment » Theatre

Brilliant Traces

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 6, 2016
Laura Menzie and Spencer Parli Tew star in 'Brilliant Traces,' continuing through June 12 at Atlantic Wharf
Laura Menzie and Spencer Parli Tew star in 'Brilliant Traces,' continuing through June 12 at Atlantic Wharf  

Brown Box Theatre Project follows up on their previous season offerings ("Lab Rats" and "Boxer Shorts II") with the funny, moving "Brilliant Traces," a two-hander in which actors Laura Menzie and Spencer Parli Tew toss the burdens of volatile and deeply-felt personal misery and alienation back and forth like a hot potato. They never drop the ball, even when the script makes a rare misstep down a thematic dead end. The pair capture the stage, and the audience, and never let go.

Henry (Tew) is living alone in a cabin in remote Alaska -- a locale so remote, in fact, that the cabin is 400 miles away from his job site, where he works as a cook for an oil rig crew. There's a mean blizzard blowing outside, so Henry stays snug inside his home and tucks up in bed to keep warm. That's when, in the middle of the night, a sudden pounding at his door takes place and a woman named Rosannah (Menzie) comes bursting in like a maenad of the snow, clad in a wedding gown -- a vision in white from the depths of the white-out.

This first encounter is stark in terms of its sheer outrageous improbability (she's wearing a wedding dress? Accessorized with lacy satin shoes? In subzero temperatures and a vision-obliterating blizzard taking place in the middle of the night? And she actually finds the shelter of Henry's cabin?) but no less striking is the difference in the two characters. Rosannah is uncontrollably chatty and jittery, bouncing around, guzzling Henry's whiskey, and verbally tripping over herself with outcries of her ravaging pain -- a pain embedded, she declares, in her very DNA -- while Henry (enrobed in a blanket to the point of being invisible, almost a ghost in his still and silent apprehension) simply stands there, shocked, and watches. When Rosannah abruptly winds down and then topples to the floor, Henry bundles her into his own bed, heaping blankets upon her.

Mysteries thicken and multiply from there, before finally yielding insights and a general outline not only of Rosannah's story (she fled a wedding in Arizona and just kept driving non-stop until her car gave out in the Alaskan wilderness) but also Henry's. What drove Henry to his solitary and isolated existence? Was it in any way an impulse similar to the overwhelming frenzy that brought Rosannah to his door? If Rosannah's excruciations emanate from, and pierce her down to, her personal essence, Henry's are just as intrinsic and primal, but why are they in such pain? It takes successive rounds of commiseration, confrontation, and increasing attraction to strip both characters down to their throbbing core selves.

Cindy Lou Johnson's script possesses an almost holographic sensibility, shifting continually from the surreal to the immediately specific and from giddy humor to deep desolation. More than once you start to wonder whether one character is a product of the other's fever dream. Is Henry suffering cabin fever? Is Rosannah in an extremis of hypothermia? There are times when the characters aren't certain, themselves, that their conversation is actually happening. When Henry frets that he's lost his socialization after so long in a literal and emotional wilderness, it's easy to think back to words Rosannah said to him while in a two-day coma of exhaustion and malnutrition -- "I'm the prettiest girl you've ever seen" -- and interpret them not as sleep-talking but as some sort of externalization of Henry's own longings.

Conversely, when Rosannah recounts being propelled along the road by a feeling of hovering outside of and above self, her soul racing faster then the vehicle can keep up with, you worry that she really has, in some sense, flown off the earth and right out into the cosmos, and the cabin -- blizzard, Henry, and all -- is simply the fading perception of abdicated physical existence.

The play's themes -- and its searing, poetic language -- may be built from motes and ether, dancing with all the fluid brilliance of a flame, but Ben Lieberson's set -- all planks and hooks and frugal functionality, an effect enhanced by Cheryl Taustin's attention to the furnishings and props -- is brilliantly close and neat, as sure in its rustic solidity as the characters are dubious about their own coherence. Bridget Collins' lighting design underscores the inbuilt sense of dislocation, illuminating Henry and Rosannah with the calmness of a suburban afternoon before washing them out, here and there, with an almost vertiginous flare of brightness. The blizzard moans away with purgatorial howls, thanks to Thomas Blanford's sound design, and the play's music is as tender, tentative, and inscrutable as the text.

The whole package, overseen by director Kyler Taustin, amounts to a ghost story of the still-living, and a passion play about people trying, unsuccessfully, to escape their suffering. Will these two lost souls find themselves in one another? That becomes the play's most compelling mystery, and you're not quite sure, when all's said and done and what you've just seen is ringing in your memory, that it's a mystery that's been resolved.

"Brilliant Traces" continues through June 12 at Atlantic Wharf in Boston, before touring to Oxford, Salisbury, and Ocean City, Maryland. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.brownboxtheatre.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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