Is it possible for serendipity to intervene and bring two totally random people together? Cindy Lou Johnson’s play Brilliant Traces — at 35below through Sunday, Jan. 26 — gives us a lesson in fate.
Bewildered and frozen by the cold, Rosannah (played by Shari Azar) desperately bangs on the door of a stranger’s remote Alaskan cabin. Inside, Henry (Thomas Trauger) is awakened. Rosannah enters the room with a wild spirit, wearing a tattered wedding gown and fragile slippers. Henry shields himself under a blanket as Rosannah talks a mile a minute, guzzling the liquor left on the kitchen table. She eventually passes out on the floor.
Henry takes her in his arms and places her in his small bed. Coming to, she realizes they are trapped together in a whiteout and the blizzard has buried her broken-down car. Slowly, the characters let down their guards. Through intimate conversations, the mystery of why they both happen to be there begins to surface.
This is a difficult play to witness for many reasons, but it helps remind us that when theater challenges our emotions, it holds extraordinary value. Almost everything about this play’s discomfort is viable. However, some of the script’s repetitive dialogue makes it feel as if we orbit too long around the same ideas. Most notable are the references to Rosannah’s slippers. While this is a key element, hearing it too often cheats us out of the poetic connection in the end.
This production is shown with no intermission, and clocking in at an hour and 45 minutes, it runs the risk of growing rather tiresome. However, Robert Dale Walker (of Rough Play theater company) has done an extremely sound job of directing such a bleak play. He has the show stripped to the bare essentials, allowing it to challenge ideology and faith. Walker’s choice to downplay the script’s hit-or-miss comedy was the right one, given the intensity produced by the actors.
Both Azar and Trauger are chilling. Their profound performances are coming from a very real place — one that must be agonizing for the actors to endure. While watching, one should remain respectfully aware that this type of acting, night after night, is not easy.
Trauger embodies a hermit mentality with quiet brilliance. We question if Henry has predatory tendencies or is just someone lost in life. Perhaps more of this suspicion between the characters could have been explored. Regardless, Trauger perfectly unhinges himself later to match Azar’s vigor. This reveals a heartbreaking avalanche of woes.
In particular, it is Azar who resonates. When her character relives traumatic moments, she makes piercing eye contact with members of the audience, and we’re pulled under her spell. Throughout the years, Azar has gradually built a portfolio of excellent performances, but this is by far her best.
The ambiance of Brilliant Traces is appropriately unsettling and could have been left that way. Yet, significantly highlighting this production is live music by composer Travis Ortwein, who strums his guitar with an organic beat offering a sense of unexpectedly hopeful restoration.
WHAT: Brilliant Traces WHERE: 35below, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Jan. 26. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $16