Encore Michigan

Love twists and turns through Williamston’s production of ‘Bright Half Life’

Review May 02, 2024 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, MI–Love stories are complicated affairs. Even when reality claims that lovers experience their life together sequentially, it is far more common that each love story twirls in near-incomprehensible circles. The past injects itself forward into all stages of the timeline and dreams of the future dictate the decisions of the present.

At Williamston Theatre HERE, Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life captures an example of this, a beautiful, messy, intensely authentic story of the lifetime that two people share. The story is of two women–one Black, one white–in love, but it is a universal story that holds relevance for any two people who have for decades danced together and apart to the melody of love and desire.

Through the course of 70 minutes, Bright Half Life reveals the touchstone moments of a 45-year relationship—all the joys and sorrows of building a life and a family. It is a celebration of love, of marriage, of life and even of heartbreak and separation. The play’s actions span from 1985 to 2031, but not presented in that order.

Directed by Megan Buckley-Ball, an all-female technical and artistic team bring this 2014 work to the stage, a work that explores all the joy, heartbreak and confusion of a relationship and marriage. It jumps between moments in time only hinting at exact chronologies and leaving many questions purposefully unanswered.

Buckley-Ball leans into minimalism, keeping a tight focus on the interactions of two hearts. While the playwright intends for many moments to be undefined in time, Buckley-Ball offers assistance to audiences, providing them with landmarks in the forms of lighting, blocking and emotional levels to let them know when changes are taking place.

It is a play where the audience must trust—trust in the process and trust in the story. Not everything will feel comfortable or logical at first. However, by sitting back and staying with the story, it is possible to fall deeply into the flow. In so doing, the story becomes richer than if it were told in conventional order as all moments inform each other and when they are re-enacted, they take on new meanings.

Tamara PiLar as Vicky and Dani Cochrane as Erica make this story work because they are so committed to each other. They seem blissfully unaware that there is an audience or even that there is a world outside of the love and connection these two characters have with each other. They embrace all of their imperfections, fears, hopes and merits.

The connection they display makes it seem impossible that these two people should be anything but together. They make the case that this is a love story for the ages despite being one that is familiar and ubiquitous. The relationship they have goes beyond chemistry, for chemistry seems reductive, a description of initial attraction, not the merging of two souls.

PiLar’s Vicky is the more organized and professionally successful of the two. Her strength comes in loyalty and in her determination to accept even what she dislikes and adapt to the hand that is dealt to her. However, while she demonstrates Vicky’s stoicism and strength, some of her most delightful moments come when she reveals her playfulness and vulnerability. PiLar infuses Vicky with joy and happiness. Even though her life has moments of trauma, she is not defined by that trauma and her story is not one of pain, but one of elation and celebration.

Cochrane shows great versatility in her creation of Erica. She embraces her insecurities and fears while being courageous in her pursuit of love and her willingness to open her heart and spirit to Vicky and through her to the world. She infuses subtle differences into Erica at different stages in her life, capturing a growth and an arc even as the playwright has both actors presenting pieces of the arc in shattered form.

Barfield provides a storyline that Cochrane and PiLar use to show that people can become one even while they never let go of their individuality.

Bright Half Life unabashedly believes in love in all its forms. It shows love that can be erotic, platonic, lasting, ephemeral. It shows love that hurts and heals. It shows how love can create a life between two people.

As intimacy director, Alexis Black demonstrates that the role transcends simply making contact between actors safe. Rather, it is a role that makes safe intimacy sexy. Black’s contribution to the storytelling is that you forget the intimacy is choreographed. The contact between the two characters becomes the inescapable progression of their attraction to each other. Whether the contact takes center stage as a loving consummation or exists in small moments that could almost be overlooked, it always furthers the story and lets the audience believe that these two women belong to each other.

Given that the play must move between locations and decades, Buckley-Ball and her team chose to eliminate distractions or choices that were overly representational. Rachael Nardecchia’s lighting creates an elevator, a plane, a home, a store. Sometimes the lighting changes are dramatic and other times they provide minor shifts in shading, but always they carry the audience on the journey with the two characters. Suzi Regan works with her to provide accompanying sound effects (and inspired choices of music to provide a soundtrack to many moments).

Jennifer Maiseloff’s scenic design celebrates the abstract. There are no pieces that delay transitions because they have to be moved. Rather the set is empty with the back wall and floor painted in soft, beautiful spirals and swirls, a mixture of pastels, blues and greens that suggest a relationship that sometimes soars through the sky even as it always fears the potential of crashing and dying.

Bright Half Life engages because all involved embrace the story’s ambiguities. It rejects the idea that a relationship “succeeds” if it lasts forever or “fails” if it ends in divorce. It instead presents something more complex. It presents the idea that life is rich because of its moments, treasures that last a lifetime. A relationship isn’t defined by its beginning or its end. It is, rather, a collage of ever over-lapping portraits.