Theaters have been trying to break down the fourth wall for a while now, from ancient Greek choruses addressing audiences in man-in-the-street Greek to the Living Theater haranguing us in the aisles. In its several productions, the Narragansett-based Theater of Thought has finessed the problem quite nicely — by making us flies on that wall, as the expression goes.
Their current two-person play (through October 19) is being performed in a small, dilapidated cottage in the woods.
Brilliant Traces, by Cindy Lou Johnson, is an ideal story for such a setting. Henry Harry (Jeff Hodge) is as much of a hermit as he can be, in his remote Alaskan cabin 400 miles inland. He works as a cook on the oil rigs, and he secludes himself here for the two weeks he has off every seven weeks.
Stumbling out of a blizzard into his refuge comes Rosannah DeLuce (Amber Kelly), bare-shouldered in a wedding gown. She’d been wandering around for an hour after her car broke down and eventually was attracted by his light. As, inevitably, conflicts arise and she wants to leave, he can’t in good conscience let her. When the wind whips up a whiteout, no one can see 10 feet ahead; she would freeze to death.
But it takes a while for that conflict to come up. Rosannah is one of those people who can’t stop talking when she’s jittery, so she jabbers away for long minutes while he stares mute and groggy from his bed. She learned from a TV movie that she could save her fingers from frostbite by keeping them in her armpits. We worry about her toes, covered only by filthy satin slippers. She apologizes for her “Mars bar tremble,” from living on candy bars in recent days, stocking up every five hours when she would stop for gas. She scarfs some pretzels he has around, keeps taking hits from his bottle of Jameson as she prattles on about “this terrible pain in my DNA” and, not surprisingly, faints dead away.
We are 20 minutes into the play before her reluctant host speaks. She has been sleeping for two days. Their back-and-forth progresses interestingly, as what brought each of them to their troubled states gradually emerges from their reluctant conversation. In his case, it’s a trauma, as melodramatic as it is affecting. Her reason is more existential, not some sudden revelation at the altar, as Henry suggests.
What made Rosannah bolt could sound rather vague and pretentious in a paraphrase of her description, but playwright Johnson makes that vulnerability the strongest element of Brilliant Traces. Rosannah anchors her fragility in solid and sometimes poetical examples. We’ve all heard countless descriptions of a mind slipping into Alzheimer’s, but her account of her father’s is a quiet thunderbolt: after he fails to recognize a chair and she explains what it is for, he’s amazed at “an inanimate object meeting you halfway.” Henry has his moments, too. He warns her against going back into the whiteout, saying how eventually even gravity won’t help her distinguish up from down, how she might try to walk into the sky. That describes perfectly what Rosannah had been trying to get across about her state of mind.