Chris Jones gives Bright Half Life ★★★½
Who has the most power in a romantic relationship at any given moment? The person who wants it the most. This is a paradox d’amour: the more you love another person, the more you have to lose.
There is a moment in Tanya Barfield’s moving two-character play “Bright Half Life,” which is the story of a relationship from the first meeting to the sad end, coda attached, when one of the characters stands there naked (figuratively speaking) and tells her lover that she has come to give her “days and nights.” Which is the most any of us has to give.
“Take me,” says Erica to Vicky, “to all the places you want to go.”
For in this relationship, Erica is the dreamer and Vicky the one with the plan. Erica is the one who likes to be led into the dark; Vicky first looks around for clear and present danger. Most self-aware couples will relate.
Especially when they clap eyes on the face of Elizabeth Ledo, who imbues her character with such a force of affection that she raises the stakes of this show at Theater Wit under the direction of Keira Fromm.
What makes Ledo, as Erica, so very fine in this show is that she has figured out how to give us reasons why the much cagier Vicky, played by Patrese McClain with apt reserve, would fall in love outside of her comfort zone and yet, at the same time, Ledo’s work here also prefigures how the ill-fated relationship under review is destined to end. In short, you spend your 90 minutes fearing for Erica and hoping, against hope, for both of these women and the unseen children they adopt.
“Half Life,” which is produced here by About Face Theatre, is about a lesbian relationship. Erica is white while Vicky is African-American. Barfield makes clear those realities give the women more to navigate. That said, this inclusive, open-hearted play, fundamentally and determinedly, traffics in universals. Surely with intention, Barfield holds back on giving too many details of the women’s lives, focusing instead on the fragile dynamics of their relationship, which is not so different, one quickly intuits, from most other marriages or long-term partnerships. It is a play designed for you to compare what you are watching with what you know, and so you do. Whoever you may be.
Fromm, the director, is becoming a specialist in small, intimate shows (her shrewd designer here is William Boles) that constantly thrust characters into intense emotional confrontation. One of her strengths is a lack of fuss, her ability to cull the extraneous. And, of course, to cast exceptionally well.
“Half Life” does not proceed in traditional linear fashion. Nor (like some other works in this popular arena) does it proceed in reverse. Rather, it flits across time, with scenes moving backward and forward based mostly on causality. Sometimes, Barfield is showing us contrasts: say, how the couple would have handled this problem when they were more in love. Sometimes, she shows how this hurt creates that future unwillingness to bend.
You may feel this is well-trod turf, and you’d be right. It’s also true that this piece very much exists on that Manhattan-Montclair geographical axis where the American theater now lingers with such frequency, not least because that is what so many of its urbane, academically trained playwrights know. These intellectual characters have more time to spend in self-analysis than most. But none of that undermines the clear truths laid bare before us here. And this show makes you feel them in your bones.
In her chronological scramble of scenes, Barfield sometimes suggests growth. Not so often. As its title suggests, “Bright Half Life” leaves you with the nagging sense that maybe marriage is outdated, or at least needs refiguring to accommodate how people change. And if, like me, you resist that conclusion, it surely reveals the fortitude required to keep moving forward. Oh, and if you’re single? Buy a ticket and see why.