Courtesy of Dave Burbank

March 12, 2018

Love in Free Fall: A Review of Bright Half Life

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“Falling in love” is a fascinating expression. In my native language, Chinese, the two most-used equivalents of the phrase compare love to things one could physically fall into, such as a river or a net, but English expression might just be superior because of its ambiguity. Do we fall into love, or are we falling when we’re in love?

The Kitchen Theater’s Bright Half Life seems to say it’s both. Written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Sara Lampert Hoover, Bright Half Life is a two-women play that follows the story of Vicky (Shannon Tyo) and Erica (Jennifer Bareilles) through the decades. In a fragmented non-linear narrative, a complex relationship arc slowly comes together as the puzzle pieces fall into place. The two women meet, date, get married, start a family, grow apart and ultimately find their way back to each other again.

Vicky and Erica’s story is remarkably ordinary, yet that might be exactly what makes it remarkable. We see them go through an awkward courtship phase, go on a quite disastrous first date, propose marriage at the worst time possible, fight about plans for the future, witness their children’s first steps and watch them grow up and start families of their own. It sounds like something that you might read on Humans of New York: some story of a couple you know or maybe even your own relationship. While I love works like Angels in America, The Normal Heart and Rent, and fully believe that discussion of LGBTQ+ history and politics is ever more relevant today, it is incredibly refreshing to see Barfield take a step back from the politics and just focus on the relationship — the laughter, the tears, the struggles and of course love itself.

But to leave out politics completely would be too much of an idealization, perhaps even an impossibility for a same-sex couple in New York City in the 2000s. Erica is an out-and-proud white woman, an activist who attends protests regularly and volunteers at an LGBTQ+ crisis hotline in her spare time. Vicky’s the cautious one with a plan for everything, the typical Asian-American girl who cares a lot (too much) about what her family thinks, who dares not to be anything but perfect. If being a same-sex couple is hard, being an interracial same-sex couple is even harder. Erica doesn’t understand why Vicky couldn’t tell her family about them, while Vicky doesn’t see the point in making her sexuality political. The two clash over their differing views on race and privilege and how they factor into sexual identities.

I learned from Shannon Tyo that Barfield had originally written Vicky as a black woman, but put in two alternative scenes for whether she was cast as Asian or Latina. While I haven’t seen or read the other two versions, I truly appreciated the effort that went into crafting a nuanced discussion about race.

The one major flaw in the script was the non-linear narrative. The fragmented structure is refreshing and fun for the first fifteen minutes, but as the play went on and the audience becomes more invested in the story emotionally, the structure required too much work to figure out and distracted from the emotional involvement. The dramaturgs did a great job putting up a timeline display in the lobby, but I wonder how much more time I would’ve spent on piecing together the narrative if I hadn’t read the timeline beforehand.

However, the production dealt with this challenge amazingly well. Tyo and Bareilles not only have great chemistry, but the acting chops for this difficult piece. The set doesn’t give them much other than two chairs and a blue rug in the middle of a wooden platform. Everything from office cubicle to a Ferris wheel ride had to be acted out. They transitioned seamlessly between stages of the relationship whenever time skips in the script, often only aided by a shift in lighting. But most importantly, they brilliantly depicted the layered and sometimes conflicting emotions in this love story that spans decades.

The penultimate scene, which echoes an earlier scene that takes place when couple first met, is arguably the most emotionally rich and difficult one in the whole play. It would’ve been incredibly easy to go overboard and overdramatize, and given the plot development (which I won’t spoil) it seemed like the obvious choice, yet the Tyo and Bareilles’ controlled and restrained delivery of the scene made it more affecting and realistic than I had expected.

“Take me to all the places you want to go,” Erica says to Vicky early on, and fulfills her promise when she goes skydiving with her despite being afraid of heights. The scene in which they hold onto each other by the plane’s open door right before jumping out is a recurring image throughout the play. Are they glad they took the leap? I’m inclined to believe so. They fall in love, fall out of love and fall back to each other. But in falling, they catch each other, too.

Andrea Yang is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com.