Somewhere in Alaska, a woman knocks on a door. It isn’t a polite, casual knock—it’s a thunderous banging that reverberates through your body like the pounding of a war drum. Whoever this woman is, she has channeled all of her fear and rage into that knock, as if to say, “Absorb all that I’m feeling. I dare you.”
That moment makes for a fearsome start to Defunkt Theatre’s production of Brilliant Traces, Cindy Lou Johnson’s 1989 play about two wounded souls finding both solace and anguish during a blizzard. It’s an appealingly volatile, occasionally mechanical play. In the right hands, it has the power to stir and shock. In the wrong hands, it risks devolving into dramatized therapy.
Which is why it’s a relief that the play has come to Defunkt. I’ve seen the company take audiences to myriad destinations, from Albert Einstein’s hotel room to an Iowa high school. Yet one thing has never changed: Defunkt’s plays are always driven by explosive emotions and sublime imagery. Brilliant Traces continues that impressive tradition by unleashing two thrillingly in-your-face performances on a set so evocatively wintry that it nearly makes you shiver.
Brilliant Traces stars Elizabeth Jackson (who is also the play’s director) as Rosannah Deluce, who arrives at the remote home of Henry Harry (Matt Smith) after her car breaks down during a whiteout. Eschewing formal introductions, she barges through the door and begins bellowing about how she’s been living off candy and hasn’t been sleeping. Then she helps herself to some pretzels and passes out on the floor.
When Rosannah finally awakens, a new phase of the play begins: war. Trapped by the blizzard in Henry’s messy abode, the characters are set on an incendiary collision course. It’s Rosannah’s operatic outbursts (in one scene, she abruptly goes from meekly allowing Henry to spoon soup into her mouth to berating him for doing so) versus Henry’s penchant for selective and passive-aggressive fussiness (he’s fine with his own clutter, but he’d rather scorch Rosannah’s shoes in the oven than leave than lying on the floor).
As Rosannah and Henry face off, the play begins to reveal the secret traumas that have driven them to the Last Frontier, which is disappointing. Rather than revel in the mesmerizing chaos of the play’s early scenes, Johnson follows a predictable narrative playbook: The Dark Pasts of the Characters are teased and slowly unveiled, paving a narrative roadway to healing and redemption that is too predictable and precise to be as affecting as it wants to be.
Yet thanks to the consistently audacious work of the cast and crew, I wasn’t especially bothered by the story’s tidiness. I was pretty busy marveling at, among other things, Kyra Sanford’s set design, which conveys a visceral sense of lostness. Henry may be the one who says that whiteouts are so disorienting that they cause people to try to step into the sky, but it’s Sanford who translates that feeling into visual terms. By surrounding the set with mounds upon mounds of white cloth (all of it lumpy and jammed together) she creates the sense that we, like Rosannah and Henry, are adrift in a pale void.
It’s a scary place, albeit one with fine company. I was wowed by Smith when I saw him star in Shakespeare’s Richard III at the now-shuttered Post5 Theatre and I’m happy to report that he’s just as compelling as a persnickety loner as he was as a grandly malevolent monarch. As for Jackson, let’s just say that it would take a superhuman writer to create a role that she couldn’t play. Rosannah may be in existential shambles, but Jackson imbues her with the same inner and outer ferocity that she displayed last year while playing an MMA fighter in Defunkt’s Girl in the Red Corner (to watch her get in Smith’s face and stare down at him with a look that could paralyze a panther is to see the very idea of power encapsulated in a single moment).
So what would Brilliant Traces be worth without Jackson and Smith? I don’t know. But I am sure that while it’s a play of mixed potential, the performances are so intoxicating that you’ll want to get lost in the storm with Rosannah and Henry, never to return.
Brilliant Traces is at Defunkt Theatre, 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., through June 8. Ticket and schedule information here.