Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life is a series of fragments, a choreography comprised of the disparate motions of a relationship: Erica (Emma Dunlop ’18) would like to take a job in a different city, but Vicky (Elizabeth Iduma ’20) wants her to stay in New York. Vicky dreams of going skydiving, but Erica is scared of heights. They both want to get married — but Erica can’t seem to muster a proper proposal.
In some ways, the play, directed by Sean Seu ’19 and put on by Stage Femmes in the Black Box Theater last weekend, takes the most basic rule of playwriting to heart: Put two characters in a room together and get one of them to want whatever the other one is not prepared to give.
On the other hand, the story is told out of chronological order, jumping back and forth across decades and using little in terms of props or a set. In the play’s disconnected scenes, we follow Erica and Vicky from the day they meet at work, through their first dates and the milestones of their marriage and past their divorce.
Both leads of this tricky play gave strong performances. Iduma and Dunlop were adept at switching between scenes, often moving from anger to giddiness in a matter of seconds.
This production also made efficient use of its bare set. The string of a kite, which descended from the ceiling on two occasions, was one of the only props. Small changes in sound or lighting moved the characters to new locations. In one scene, Vicky jumps (believably) on a wooden box that is supposed to be a bed in a mattress store.
Part of what makes their relationship compelling is that Erica and Vicky have conspicuously different personalities. Erica is impulsive and a romantic. Vicky, on the other hand, is precise and professional. She is the one who handles the details of their relationship. She often must tell Erica where to find household items, and she nags Erica about caring for their children. Yet it is Erica who takes the steps to progress their relationship. It is she who asks Vicky — her supervisor at work — on a date. It is she, also, who proposes, who wants to have kids and who eventually separates from Vicky.
Told out of order, the play traces this journey at all of its critical junctures, in the moments when the characters must make a decision that will either pull them closer together or tear them apart. The tension does not come from where they will end up, or whether they will regret their choices; we pretty much know all those answers from the start. In the world of the play, it is more how they will get to their decision.
By the play’s end, it is pointless to try to decide whether the relationship succeeded or not. The play is a rejection of the narrative that a relationship is a means to an end. What matters more is that it was powerful — and that it was shared.