Addison — Like Homer’s Odyssey and other fabulous mythic adventures, Cindy Lou Johnson’s Brilliant Traces, an 80-minute play premiered by Circle Repertory Company nearly 30 years ago, begins in medias res, in the middle of things, then the characters tell their back stories about what brought them to this moment.
The ancient device works wonderfully in Johnson’s fascinating play, directed with a strong poetic rhythm by Emily Scott Banks at Addison Theatre Centre’s Stone Cottage. The co-producers are Endeavor Cinema Group, Funkytown Festival Productions, Carlos Aguilar, Elizabeth Kensek and Van Quattro.
Here, the wandering hero doesn’t wash up on an island, but into an isolated cabin in the wilds of Alaska. The coincidence of plot and timing is the same. We see a sleeper huddled under blankets in a darkened wood cabin with a blizzard-force wind howling all around us, thanks to Steve Barcus’s chilling sound design. No set design credit appears in the program, but the Stone Cottage’s built-in fireplace and pine-paneled walls is perfect for the play.
A loud banging commences at the door and the sleeper, a man played by tall, blue-eyed Van Quattro, opens his cabin to the storm and a beautiful, dazed woman in a wedding gown, played by gray-eyed Elizabeth Kensek, blows in with the wind and can’t stop talking. Of course, we’re all ears.
The man, a self-determined hermit named Henry, looks on in stunned silence as the agitated girl-woman, a dazed runaway named Rosannah DeLuce, rushes toward the fire and warms her satin-slippered feet, guzzles Jack Daniels from his shelf, stuffs herself with pretzels and babbles on about how her car stalled and she’s been battling through the snow with no sleep for days.
Kensek’s opening monologue alone is an astonishing performance piece in itself. Cogent and matter-of-fact one moment, she lights on a table and describes periodically fueling her car on gas and herself on Mars bars as she succumbs to the compulsion pushing her to outpace the very car she’s driving. Or she gets a little jittery, and her voice becomes more hushed as she tries to define the terrifying force thrusting her forward. “The pain is in my DNA or my aorta; I’m not sure,” she explains to her host. Then she collapses on the animal skin beside his bed.
What’s a poor hermit to do? He didn’t invite this lost soul from a society he’s clearly worked hard to avoid into his loner’s life, but here she is. He covers her up, makes her some soup and waits. The two are trapped in the cabin in a snow storm so impenetrable, it makes everything disappear. When Rosannah comes to and is nourished enough to feel the restless spirit moving inside her, Henry warns her of the dangers of hallucination and freezing to death in a full-blown white-out. “If you ever wandered what nothing looks like, go out that door,” he says. Is this what she’s running from or to?
As the two refugees from civilization wait out the blizzard, each tells stories of the distance they’ve come and the people they’ve loved that have left scars on their psyches, the “brilliant traces” of the title. Sometimes Johnson’s characters speak of ordinary, concrete things, like oil rigs and Triple A service, but often their language reaches higher, epic-like, to capture more ethereal feelings, like the way love defines us and gives us reality. Both actors handle the wide range with ease, as if they speak this way all the time.
Quattro’s Henry is a rapt listener. First shocked by Rosannah’s appearance, like some goddess dropping through the roof, and then concerned about the creature aspects of keeping her alive. His face shows honest curiosity and human compassion for this woman, even when she’s pouting in the corner like some sulky adolescent. Hers is the center of gravity when it comes to storytelling, but eventually we also learn what has brought him to this place where he doesn’t have to ride the dreaded “roller coaster” of living with other human beings, those unpredictable creatures who generate life-affirming affection and abject misery.
Because of the darker aspects of their stories, we’re uncertain if we’re watching a tragic fantasy or a romantic comedy of a man and women battling it out until love conquers all. In fact, we’re not at all sure what will happen with these two misfits until the last moment. But even if we knew, we’d want to take this strangely familiar journey with them, which explains why Brilliant Traces has been produced over and over in three decades and in many languages; it has even had a number of local productions.
Wear a sweater—that howling wind will make you want to wrap something around you, even if it’s cozy-warm in the cabin. Hot chocolate would be fantastic.