By Amy J. Parrent
“Relationships are the story you tell each other about yourself,” said Dan Walker, producing director at Theatre Nova. And “Bright Half Life” is the innovative story about relationships that the theater is telling to audiences this month. The new play by Tanya Barfield is having its Michigan premiere, following a February debut at the Women’s Project Theater in New York.
The play leaps rapidly around time, intercutting snippets of scenes as it covers decades of the complicated relationship between Erica, played by Alysia Kolascz, and Vicky, portrayed by Breon Canady.
“The play is a textbook example of your memory of your life, the way you fill it in,” said Walker. “Life is not clean and linear; it’s a mess.”
Walker, who is the play’s director and production designer, has been juggling involvement in three plays and a new college teaching appointment.
“But I didn’t want to give this play up,” he said. “I fell in love with the script. It’s the single best play about relationships I’ve ever seen. We got (the rights) within a month of it being available.”
A divorced father, Walker found strong echoes in the show. He even has a daughter the same name as the fictional couple’s child. He said if you described the play briefly, you’d say it’s about an interracial gay couple. “But that’s completely incidental,” he added.
Actor Canady said, “It’s about intimacy and what happens behind the scenes (in a relationship). I’m pulling from my relationship with my own girlfriend.”
Canady said both actors are onstage for the entire 70 minutes of the show. “It’s strenuous, emotionally difficult. The fights are not pretty, they’re playing hardball.”
Recently Canady found herself overwhelmed by preparations for the challenging role. “I said to my mother, ‘Mommy, I don’t know what to do.'” So her mom did the mom thing, and ran through lines with her like a drill sergeant, making her repeat each chunk of dialogue multiple times.
But still, Canady said, “Doing a new play is the greatest feeling in the world for an actor. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone. It’s all us. (Walker) let us find it on our own.”
Walker, older than his two 20-something actors, did bring additional life experience to helping them span the half-century in the characters’ lives and relationship.
For instance, at a rehearsal when one actor didn’t feel like going full-throttle yelling, Walker told her, “You don’t understand. You’re 15 years into this thing. It’s the nuclear option. You have to understand the intensity of the negativity and still have love.”
“It takes (the characters) a long time, it takes them 50-some-odd years until they’re in sync,” said Canady, who compares the characters to Maureen and Joanne in “Rent” – “If it kept going on.”
Canady said, “Vicky (her character) is a control freak, snarky. When she allows fear of the unknown, she’s more likeable. She becomes a person you want to talk to. She still has a heart, and when she shows it, it’s 100 percent. Erica – we’ve been calling her a puppy. She doesn’t make a lot of decisions. I’m naturally more Erica. I do the exact thing in my life. I go with what I feel, not the logical.”
The play is filled with symbolism of the highs and lows of a relationship, as the characters go skydiving, fly a kite, board a Ferris wheel. The show’s experience will be a roller coaster for the audience as well, with the instantaneous leaps in time coming in the “middle” of a scene.
“We call them flashes,” said Canady. “If we’re changing time periods, a movement leads us into the next one. We’ll be arguing face to face, then jump to a moment where we’re in love.”
Or vice versa.
“The actors will be in a clinch that turns violent,” said Walker. “It’s a striking style that asks a lot of the actors and audience. I’ve seen other plays that jump around in time, but haven’t seen one that’s this hard, this fast.
“The play is super theatrical,” he added. “There’s not time to use props. The actors are transformed instantly. Usually when I start a play’s design, I preset the computer to do three to five-second fades between scenes. Every fade in this show is one-tenth of a second.”
“The play itself is designed to not have a rational experience,” said Walker. “If it tracks right, it will rip your heart out. For all the fighting, they really loved each other. I need plays that tell the truth but leave you with hope. It’s the perfect play for me and for what I want to do with this theater.”
Bright Half Life
416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
All shows pay-what-you-can; suggested donation $20
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, 15, 22
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, 16, 23
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, 17, 24
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11, 18, 25