"Bright Half Life" explores beauty and mess of long-term relationships

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By Sue Henninger

Tompkins Weekly

 

“Bright Half Life”, Tanya Barfield, Kitchen Theatre Company, through March 18, 272-0570, kitchentheatre.org. No intermission.

Tanya Barfield’s simple, yet complex and emotionally-layered play, “Bright Half Life”, directed by Sara Lampert Hoover, offers a different yet familiar perspective on love. The show will feel relevant to anyone who has ever been part of a long-term marriage or commitment.

Vicky (Shannon Tyo) and Erica (Jennifer Bareilles) are two women who met as young coworkers. The nonlinear play follows their lives together over several decades. Scenes are cinematic, rapidly shifting from present tense to flashbacks in a manner that can be initially unsettling for the audience, but which ultimately keeps viewers engaged with the two characters, engrossed in what’s happening onstage, and invested in the outcome of the play.

Erica is the more cynical about matrimony, noting that it’s an outdated institution that often ends in divorce. “People say ‘I love you’ and it’s over,” she asserts, to which Vicky retaliates, “People say ‘I love you’ and they get closer.” This is just one example of the many exchanges the couple has over the years, some more heated than others, that will ring true for most partners, no matter what their sexual orientation. The two argue about how their marriage proposal should go, how to raise their daughters, their parents, their career goals, and their coping styles. But they also rejoice together about parenting milestones (the first steps, the first word), a well-deserved promotion, and their willingness, despite intense fears and reservations, to take risks with each other.

The question of what individuals are determined to hold onto and what they are willing to give up for a loved one often comes to the forefront, along with a glimpse of the many ways we give joy to or disappoint those who care deeply for us. As with many couples, once the initial attraction fades into something more permanent, the two discover that some of the differences and charming quirks that initially drew them together have the potential to become grating bones of contention. Vicky and Erica also share the added challenges to their marriage, of being both a queer and an interracial couple.

Though miscommunications and crossed signals frequently occur, the two are also incredibly happy together and share a sense of humor that frequently allows them to get through the tougher times intact. Each has selective and specific memories of their times together that they’ve carefully nurtured over the years and two laugh-out-loud scenes involved the women shopping for a mattress they are contemplating buying for their shared bed and their visit to the kite store.

Not only are Tyo and Bareilles incredibly talented actors, they have a chemistry onstage that is undeniable. Playwright Barfield doesn’t shy away from conveying the positive sexual connection between the women and this greatly enhances the fullness of their relationship. It’s a tribute to both her writing expertise and their acting skill that there is little inclination to take one character’s side and reject the other. When things aren’t going well for them, though it may be easier to relate to Vicky or Erica, it’s still possible to understand, and care for, the other woman.

The set (Tyler M. Perry, Scenic and Lighting Designer) is simple, two stools on a circular rug, perched on a wave-shaped piece of wood. The women wear the same clothes throughout the play (Lisa Boquist). This simplicity serves to keep the audience’s focus on the interactions between the couple rather than getting distracted by incidentals. Directing a fast-moving, constantly shifting play like this one is incredibly demanding but Director Lampert Hoover has clearly risen to the challenge. The emotional highs and lows viewers feel along with Vicky and Erica are similar to being on an amusement park ride.

At times “Bright Half Life” can be uncomfortable to watch, comparable to seeing an unflattering image of yourself in a mirror. People who have lived together for a long time are incredibly adept at knowing which of their significant other’s buttons to push and when to push them. Eventually, the two must accept that “forever” sometimes doesn’t last that long, and their marriage dissolves. However, when Vicky becomes seriously ill, it’s clear that she and Erica, whether separated or together, have forged a bond between them, based on shared experiences and memories that will never dissipate. It’s an incredibly poignant moment when Erica asks Vicky “Would you do it again? Us?”

The ending is an extremely satisfying one in that it loops back to where the play began, providing a sense of continuity, though not closure. You leave the theatre with the sense that Vicky and Erica did the best they could with what they had and that this was enough to make their lives together both meaningful and worthwhile. Committing to one person, for better or worse, doesn’t always result in a fairytale ending. But it can be a wonderful mutual adventure you wouldn’t want to miss out on. Barfield leaves it up to us to decide whether or not we’re willing to take a chance and make that leap of faith.

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