You could almost consider it a cliche of the contemporary craft of narrative: Every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.
In Kim Rosenstock’s musical Fly by Night, which was given a sparkling production last month at Broadway Rose, time is a plaything, tossed about deftly by a narrator guiding us along the dramatic switchbacks of a year in the lives of three young lovers. But that’s kids’ stuff compared to the chronological legerdemain that Portland native Tanya Barfield gets up to in Bright Half Life, the closing play in Profile Theater’s Barfield-focused 2016 season. Events in the decades-long relationship between Vicky and Erica come at us not in standard forward-motion sequence, not in the reverse-engineered epiphanies of flashbacks, not even in discrete stand-alone scenes. Instead we get a splattering of small moments, an almost free-associative memory tour, as the action ricochets around the years, striking a different point of connection or conflict seemingly every other minute.
The view of coupledom and its inner workings that results is somewhere between prismatic and scattershot, its success dependent in part on how much you relate to the characters and their particular emotional travails, in part on how well you can connect the thematic dots so widely and loosely dispersed.
No doubt I fell short on the latter point, distracted as I was by a horizontal row of lights along the back wall of the stage, the only adornment to Peter Ksander’s spare scenic design — floor and wall painted in mottled dark blues and grays, like dusky skies or murky seas, bisected by a long slate-gray bench. The 11 lights, I guessed, corresponded to the years of the relationship; so if four of them were on, the action must be from the fourth year of Vicky and Erica as a couple, three lights meant we’d gone back in time a bit, and so on. But when seven lights were on as the two talked about their children being grown and out of the house, I realized I’d wasted my energy in a fool’s quest for chronological comfort. Get too hung up on on time as it relates to narrative detail here and you’ll feel like you’re reading an origami roadmap.
And yet, director Rebecca Lingafelter handles this difficult material with such rhythmic alacrity that she finds a kind of shapeliness amid the disorder. Crucially, it’s clear how attentive she was to the multi-layered emotional nuances of each situation, which actors Chantal DeGroat and Maureen Porter, convey with mercurial quickness and remarkable clarity.
DeGroat’s Vicky is the straight-arrow striver, the practical one, early to work, more concerned with (public) racial identity than (private) sexual identity. Porter’s Erica is the more avowedly lesbian, and (perhaps therefore) the more comfortable in her own skin. She’s not, however, necessarily as comfortable in her own mind; she matches Vicky’s solidity with impulsiveness but also with insecurity. Barfield presents these qualities through discussions of gay marriage, parental acceptance, professional ambition and work/life balance, but also through such clearly metaphorical activities as riding a Ferris wheel and skydiving. (“It’s a gondola, not a cage!” Vicky corrects her terrified date on the amusement park ride. And it’s she who utters the telling line about the key to skydiving, and relationships, too: “But first you gotta jump.”)
The performances are detailed, fierce, funny, emotionally agile — and nearly enough to make Barfield’s daring structural gambit pay off.
The first playwright chosen under an initiative to focus on woman playwrights and those of color, Barfield brought the benefits of a strong national reputation, local roots and an appealing personality — her speech to Profile supporters at a season-opening lunch early this year was as engaging as any of her plays.
But there has been a vagueness to the plays themselves — with the exception of Blue Door, an exploration of black cultural identity which, though dramatically satisfying, suffered from the fallacy that bothers me about August Wilson’s (otherwise magnificent) work, the notion that racial/cultural inheritance carries a moral obligation. In Bright Half Life, she gets to something powerful and true about the way that disparate experiences and the way we interpret and link them over time — not the march through time itself — shape our relationships. But opting for breadth of concerns (marriage, kids, work, group identity, social approval, family politics, etc.) over specificity (what are their kids like?; what sort of work do these two do, anyway?) or cause-and-effect clarity, however iffy that can be, keeps the play from the kind of focused impact it feels like it wants to have.
In a way, for all its effort to get at the real texture of life, it feels like only half the story.
Profile Theatre’s Bright Half Life continues through November 13 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.