Plays that chart the course of a romantic relationship have long been a staple of theater. Stories told in a nonlinear way are less common but not unheard of. When you take the previous two structures and apply them to the topic of a lesbian interracial marriage, the result is a work that one doesn’t often see in American theater, which is refreshing. What’s better is that Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life is more than the sum of its diverse parts, a moving, funny and smart play currently receiving an outstanding Los Angeles premiere by The Road Theatre Company.
When they first meet in 1985, Vicky (Kacie Rogers) is Erica’s (Tiffany Wolff) supervisor at work. As the only female African-American manager in the company, Vicky feels pressure to focus on her work and succeed, and yet she can’t quite resist Erica’s free-spirited charm. The two move from early dating to a committed relationship and ultimately to marriage, dealing with a myriad of challenges and joys, from placating conservative parents to raising twin girls. The story continues through 2031, as the forty-six years of their relationship approaches a natural conclusion.
For this production to work, as it jumps back and forth in time from scene to scene, you need a duo of actors who are completely in sync with the material and each other, and thankfully that is very much the case here. Rogers excels in the more internalized, less demonstrative role of Vicky, finding the yearning spirit beneath the veneer of practicality. A moment in which she decides to stop worrying about what people think and just begins to enjoy herself at her wedding is a happy highlight. Wolff gives a terrific, detailed and energetic performance as Erica, a character whose emotions are generally worn on her sleeve. She gets the role’s audacity and appeal right, but she also nails the more vulnerable moments, such as a lovely rendition of a speech where she explains how she doesn’t want to overuse the phrase, “I love you.”
Amy K. Harmon’s direction serves the play expertly, from getting note-perfect performances from her actors to seamless transitions from one time period to another without any confusion from the audience. In this latter task she is ably abetted by Derrick McDaniel’s lighting design and Marc Antonio Pritchett’s sound design, which create new settings in an instant. In the early going I found Barfield’s nonlinear structure a bit off-putting, but gradually I eased into it. As the totality of the show came into focus, her ambition is vindicated. She creates believable characters we grow to care for, puts them into interesting situations (a Ferris wheel excursion, skydiving) and lets us examine a glimpse of lives not that different than our own, which really is the purpose of all great art.
Bright Half Life, presented by The Road Theatre Company.
THE ROAD ON MAGNOLIA
10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood.
Runs through May 8, 2022.
Tickets are available here.