Funny, poetic and raw

Who hasn't thought of running away? Just up and chucking it all and taking a powder?

For most of us that's a fantasy that gets put away with other childish things. For the two loners in Cindy Lou Johnson's "Brilliant Traces," which opened Thursday night at the Craterian Theater at the Collier Center for the Performing Arts, running is a way of life.

Henry Harry's (Adam Cuppy) flight has taken him to an an isolated cabin 400 miles back in the Alaska brush, which is where he heads when he's not working as a cook on an oil rig.

Enter Rosannah Deluce (Hannah Grenfell), another loner. And what an entrance. Rosanna's banging nearly shakes the door — one of just a few, strong but spare elements in designer Doug Ham's set on the big Craterian stage — off its hinges.

Stumbling into Henry's hideaway, she's hysterical, she's nearly frozen, and she's wearing a wedding dress that looks like it's been dragged through a war zone. Much of what she screams at Henry isn't very coherent. But the gist is clear.

She's a runaway bride, she's beside herself, and she's exhausted. Her collapse into a deep sleep — after a couple of strong pulls on a bottle of booze Henry keeps — gives him a chance to put her to bed, clean her up a bit and cover her against the Alaska night.

Over 90 minutes this odd couple will learn more about each other — and reveal more about themselves — than they would have imagined. "Brilliant Traces" ups the ante on the fish-out-of-water story. What we have here are two fish out of water, with seriously deficient social skill sets.

After Rosannah sleeps for two solid days (why do playwrights include details that stretch needlessly our willingness to suspend disbelief?) the characters get down to business, namely, figuring out what to do with each other. She can't just leave because there's a storm and a whiteout.

And there are karmic wheels turning. Henry has sworn off relationships because he can't handle them. We will learn of a tragedy in his past. The sources of Rosanna's problems are less specific. She feels she's ungrounded, hovering above the surface of things, hurtling forward as if into a void.

"Life leaves shreds of me to come back for later," she cries.

"Brilliant Traces" is often funny, with most of the laughs loaded into the front end. Rosanna pours out existential angst in a passionate rant that builds to a big climax.

"What are we talking about?" Henry deadpans.

A good deal of the tension comes from the characters' conflicting frames of reference. She's hyperbolic and metaphorical, he's literal and direct. The play takes on a more serious tone as it goes, building tension.

When the tension turns sexual — if it didn't the play would violate Chekhov's law insisting that a shotgun on the mantle must be used — the characters, and especially Henry, get more confused than ever.

With its themes of identity, isolation and the possibility or impossibility of connection, Johnson was packing big questions into a neat little '80s play. Her quirky characters get brave and intelligent interpretations from two fine young actors digging deep, and Doug Warner's direction keeps things humming.

"Brilliant Traces" is funny, poetic and raw. It's a shame the run is so short, but it's just the kind of play Next Stage Rep can squeeze into the Craterian's busy schedule. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 tonight and Saturday.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at

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