Brilliant Traces is a perfectly named play. For the most part it’s not very brilliant, but it's threaded with moments of startling clarity that knock you back in your seat. And top-drawer actors Meghan Lisi and Michael Khanlarian turn in performances worth the suggested admission price even though they're never really set free to explore the theatrical possibilities inherent in Cindy Lou Johnson's rambling, but mercifully short script
The opening is full of possibility. It’s dark, the wind is howling, and someone is beating on the door of a sparsely appointed hermit’s cabin. A woman’s voice calls out, "Let me in! I'm a person in serious trouble!" Suddenly the door bangs open and in stumbles Rosannah, delirious in a filthy wedding dress. She’s driven from Arizona all the way to a remote corner of Alaska where her car has broken down near the cabin of Harry Henry, an antisocial oil rig worker with sad stories to tell. If he can ever get a word in edgewise. For the first quarter of the play he stands silently as this mystery woman drinks his whiskey, and babbles until she passes out cold for two days.
"It's so cold in Alaska."
Harry drags Rosannah to his bed. He undresses her, respectfully. He washes her tentatively. He has a nervous breakdown over her delicate lace shoes which remind him of something that hurts real bad. Not knowing what else to do with them he puts them in the oven and burns them to a crisp. Rosannah sits up in bed and announces, “I’m the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen,” then passes out cold again. The setup is tight. Everything else falls apart.
Have you ever been trapped in a confined space with a cocaine addict having a manic sad? That’s what the rest of Brilliant Traces is like. Only there are two of them. Once Rosannah wakes up she and Harry take turns vomiting up backstory in a series of semi-coherent rants. Outside there is a white out, with snow coming down so hard it’s impossible to distinguish one direction from another. Rosannah, who arrived all in white, babbles redundantly about her fear of becoming indistinguishable. And about how, when she was driving from Arizona, in some kind of fugue state, she felt like her essence was moving faster than the car. Faster even than her own body in the car — like the essential part of who she is might fly off into space. Harry, in turn, spins a contrived tale of negligence, woe, social anxieties and “paper shoes.”
Opening sequences notwithstanding, Johnson' script is a classic example of a play that tells us who the characters are instead of showing us who they are, and Threepenny Theatre Company director Matt Crewse keeps the action as naturalistic as the symbol-laden dialogue will allow. That may or may not be a good thing. At its best Brilliant Traces hints at Eugene Ionesco’s domesticated absurdism, which isn’t always served by a close alignment of dialogue and action. It's the kind of script you really want actors to play around with. You want them to take chances and find the physical quirks and contradictions that bring dimension to characters and depth to a script in desperate need.
There’s a kind of play that actors love even if it’s not very good. They tend to be about extreme people in extreme conditions and give character actors a chance to go big and show off their range. Brilliant Traces is one of those plays. And even though Khanlarian and Lisi play things a little too safe for my liking, these are actors that could make me excited about a staged reading of the Tennessee driver’s manual. Brilliant Traces, I’m happy to report, is much better than that.
The closing moments find Rosannah and Harry on an inevitable collision course, and the play's last gasp is absolutely lovely.