Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life, produced by the Women’s Project Theatre, is beautifully cast with actors who sparkle through their roles as a long-term lesbian couple who come together and move apart and return to one another over 25-odd years.
Played with comic verve and deep feeling by Rachael Holmes and Rebecca Henderson, Vicky and Erica meet cute at work in the early 80s and get together despite Erica’s uneasiness about the aimlessness of her own career. They have children at a time when lesbians could barely imagine creating their own families. They eventually get married in Massachusetts, divorce, and suffer deaths and health crises before and after they break up. In other words, the play charts a relationship similar to many others over its long and various life.
But Barfield’s conceit is that time collapses on the couple, so that we see the relationship’s beginning, middle, and end all at once, in short scenes that rocket backwards and forwards, hither and yon, across time. It’s a fun and often funny concept, which director Leigh Silverman handles with her typical economy and precision. The stage (suggestively designed with clarity and nearly Scandinavian modernism by Rachel Hauck) is bare except for two gray, long, flat benches and the occasional metal bar that drops from the flies to represent, for instance, the safety latch on the gondola of a Ferris wheel the couple rides. Jennifer Schriever’s lighting demarcates the play’s ever-changing moments and moods, as Vicky and Erica cycle through significant life events and their attendant light, dark, or grey emotional tones.
Holmes and Henderson call up the couple’s ever-morphing emotions in rapid rotation. But what the production doesn’t quite convey (at least not in a late preview performance I saw) is the impression that this relationship is, in its longer-toothed moments, lived in and comfortable. Vicky and Erica should evince a persuasive physical and emotional intimacy, despite what become the chafing moments of long-lasting coupledom.
Barfield’s dialogue establishes appropriately knowing rhythms, as the couple talk over one another and finish each other’s sentences. But it’s challenging for actors to find their way so quickly to very different places along a continuum of feeling and time, and to move so sharply in and out of the emotional and physical challenges of representing 25 years of intimacy. As a result, all the play’s events seem, strangely, to happen right now, which compresses what I”m sure Barfield and Silverman mean to be a more expansive and complicated sense of past and future.
The play’s time scheme is represented in allusive shorthand. Vicky and Erica meet in the early 1980s, when word-processing and temping were popular ways for under-employed intellectuals to make a living in New York. Erica volunteers for a helpline perhaps connected to ACT-UP or HIV/AIDS activism; Vicky’s apartment boasts a land-line with a long, tangled cord, rather than wireless handheld receivers. Later, Erica becomes despondent when the Challenger flight explodes; Massachusetts legalizes marriage. But these events and references remain signposts to the story, ways to situate us in history rather than to deeply effect how Vicky and Erica produce and live in their on-going relationship.
Holmes and Henderson are game and determined, and their charm goes a long way toward making the production a vivid, warming 75 minutes. But that deeper layer, which would let the pair explore the costs and deep mutual effects of what it means to be together for so long, wasn’t quite reached in the preview I saw. Instead, despite its clever premise, pleasing theatrical style, and winsome performances, the play felt familiar. That their relationship forms, sediments, and breaks apart doesn’t feel as surprising or revelatory as it might.
On the other hand. Holmes is African American and Henderson is white, as are their characters, Vicky and Erica. Their biracial relationship makes the uniqueness of this square-on theatrical attention to a long-term lesbian couple that much more worthy of our time and consideration. And although the events of the relationship don’t surprise, the fact of it still seems to me notable and important. As Barfield remarks in a Huffington Post story on the play, “As a biracial gay woman, the politics of simply being alive has been part of my life since birth . . . Existence within a larger social construct grace notes all of my work.” Likewise, Vicky and Erica’s relationship in the play is also gilded with the politics of history, whether the play engages it directly or not.
I admired this production of Bright Half Life, as I’m a fan of Barfield’s and Silverman’s work, in my roles as spectator, critic, and feminist. Although I might have wanted the play’s memory to cut a bit deeper and to last a bit longer, I was glad for the ride, one I urge you to take, too, as there’s a lot to like and enjoy in Bright Half Life.
The Feminist Spectator
Bright Half Life, produced by the Women’s Project Theatre, New York City Center Stage II. Through March 22, 2015.