The beginning of Brilliant Traces, now playing at Vintage Theatre, is wonderfully evocative: A young woman in a wedding dress stumbles into a remote and dilapidated Alaska cabin. Her car broke down some time ago, and she’s been wandering in a blinding whiteout — the kind that disorients and kills — for some time before coming across this, the only inhabited place for miles. As she circles the room, dazed and jittery, mumbling and uttering non sequiturs, the inhabitant, a man hunched in a blanket, watches in silence. Finally, she collapses. He slides off the dress and places her carefully on the bed, where she sleeps for two days.
You can’t tell at the beginning if this is going to be a crazy comedy or an essentially dark one — or perhaps something more serious than comedy, though you recognize the familiar “two lonely and eccentric people getting to know and feel for one another” trope. But your hopes are high. Between the bedraggled wedding dress and the satin shoes the man accidentally — or perhaps not — crisps in the oven, you’re expecting lively originality from playwright Cindy Lou Johnson. It helps that the woman, Rosannah DeLuce, is played by the always intriguing Maggy Stacy, and the man, Henry Harry, given a strong performance by Christian Mast. Despite the name (is she meant to be “of light”?), Stacy’s Rosannah is anything but a sweet ingenue or one of those lost, drifting Ophelia-type heroines. She’s depressed, distressed and coming apart, but Stacy also makes her savvy in some ways — distrustful, smart and constantly evaluating everything she sees and hears.
The play runs roughly a hundred minutes, and I was pretty happy during perhaps the first 45 or so, intrigued by the characters and fully expecting there’d eventually be some kind of climax. But it turns out that Rosannah’s just somewhat dotty. She feels herself disintegrating. She left her wedding, she explains, because she suddenly perceived all the people in the church, including her groom, as dead (there went my nascent theory that she left because the poor man was unpleasant or abusive). Driving through the storm in her car, she felt she was moving faster than the vehicle, in fact flying ahead of it. Perhaps this means she really does represent light.
This is all very poetic — and the language is sometimes fine, as when Henry describes in detail what happens to a human being caught in a whiteout — but it’s thin gruel for sustaining an entire evening.
Brilliant Traces turns out to be the kind of play where the playwright thinks a tear-drenched, self-revelatory monologue near the end can take the place of actual action, change, genuine revelation. This can be done, but the monologue had better be a doozy: Unfortunately, poor Rosannah just repeats her delusions and sorrows until you start feeling like a therapist trying hard not to tap your fingers impatiently on the arm of your chair or doze off. Then — worse and worse — Henry joins in. The dynamic between the two was interesting when he was a jaundiced and taciturn listener, but now he’s pointing to invisible scars on his arms, on his entire body, and we realize these are the brilliant traces of the title (the phrase comes from a poem by Avah Pevlor Johnson). He goes on to describe the great tragedy of his life: the death of his three-year-old daughter. But his narrative is completely implausible. If you’ve been around any three-year-olds lately, you’ll know that they’re unlikely to grieve the loss of a tiny tinsel shoe for longer than a minute, particularly if offered a cookie.
And now everyone’s sad and you have a kind of wailing duet going on. Perhaps if director Craig A. Bond and his actors had chosen to underplay or play against some of the grief-saturated moments, the play would have worked better. As it is, it’s a relief to step outside afterward and into the neutral darkness.
Brilliant Traces, presented through March 5 by Vintage Theatre Productions, 1468 Daytona Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.org.