Brilliant Traces is many things. It’s a stunningly taut drama, a showcase for two experienced actors who are willing to take risks, and a brave combination of extended metaphor and elegiac imagery. Just don’t call it a comedy.
Because it’s being staged at Theatre 99, home of The Have Nots!, director Greg Tavares expects the audience to come in ready to laugh. “For the first five or 10 minutes, things will be taken as funny,” he says. “The tension in the room will come from the audience, not the stage.” A few laughs will help to ease that tension, but Tavares is adamant that the show is dark and challenging for the actors.
He adds, “It’s a great theater person’s action piece.”
The actors have plenty of time over the play’s 90-minute length to develop their characters, but they don’t get much of a breather. After a few blackouts to create the sensation of passing time, Tavares says that “the lights go up and they don’t go down until the end of the fucking show.”
Written by Cindy Lou Johnson, Brilliant Traces tells the story of Henry Harry, a man who has sworn off personal relationships to live hermit-like in an Alaskan cabin. And sleep a lot. His seclusion is interrupted by the surprise arrival of Rosannah DeLuce, a runaway bride brought in by a blizzard. Like Henry, she wants to escape her responsibilities and get as far away from her loved ones as possible.
Johnson has created these two misfits to enable her to write about those times in our adult lives when we want to run away from home, the demands of family life, and the crushing familiarity of the world around us. Henry feels that people are too unpredictable, continually sabotaging his search for a peaceful life. Rosannah finds her friends and relatives too cloying and ultimately harmful. It’s not much of a common bond for the two characters to share, but it might just be the start of a strong new connection.
Johnson’s play has been around since the late ’80s. When Tavares saw Brilliant Traces for the first time at Columbia’s Trustus Theatre, it stunned him. “It was very dramatic, full of tension,” he says.
Several years later he played Henry in a Charleston version of the show. Now The Have Nots! co-founder is directing a play that, he says, “has stood the test of time.
“It had no great stars to launch it, no Broadway run, but it still gets produced because of the merit of the script,” he says.
To bring Rosannah DeLuce to life, Tavares chose 23-year-old CofC graduate Eleanor Hollingsworth, who will be moving to Chicago after the run. “I wanted to do a project with her before she left,” says Tavares, “because she brings a smoldering tension to everything she does. She’s properly trained but wildly experimental. She’ll go anywhere and do anything you ask her to do.”
Hollingsworth will be joined by Lee Lewis as Henry. Lewis is well known to Theatre 99 audiences from his work in the comedy groups Doppelganger and Moral Fixation, but he’s a fine dramatic actor as well. Chops or not, the director’s sure that this production will put Lewis and Hollingsworth through their paces.
“These are two giant roles that are not like the actors themselves,” Tavares says. “The characters’ nature are incredibly flawed and unadjusted. There are things in life they haven’t healed from that they want to avoid. They don’t want to look at the things that hurt them.”
In real life, Lewis is a psychiatrist at MUSC and the practical opposite of wandering Henry Harry. Tavares occasionally has to remind him how screwed up Henry really is. And Hollingsworth is the kind of worldly woman who’ll look you in eye and tell you what she means. Rosannah feels like she’s floating above the ground, never centered or content.
“It’s a crazy, hard job, but for me, if I don’t believe them I don’t care,” Tavares concludes. “The big payoff will be if I believe them. If that happens, then we’ll be blown away.”
Expect a dark, intense drama with some comedic moments and a pair of neurotic characters snowed into a cabin with potentially explosive results. But don’t expect to relax. If all goes to plan, Tavares hopes that this pressure-cooker play will have audience members gritting their teeth and hanging onto the edge of their seats from beginning to end.
“It’s a very tense thing you’re watching,” he laughs. “You’ll be paying to get stressed.”