Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Bright Half Life
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Pericles, Rusalka, and Great Expectations

Jasmine Hughes and Sarah Agnew
Photo by Bruce Silcox
A "half-life" is the length of time it takes for a certain quantity of matter to decay by half. For example, the length of time it takes a loaf of bread, left to natural processes, to decay and diminish until only half the original loaf remains, is its half-life. When another half-life passes, that half a loaf is diminished by half, leaving a quarter of the original loaf. And so on. The process can reiterate infinitely, always reducing by half what was there a half-life ago, but a speck of the substance remains.

Tanya Barfield's play, Bright Half Life, does not make reference to the term, but its application to the relationship between Erica and Vicky that forms the body of the play is clear. The play suggests that relationships may diminish over time as individuals and the world around them change, but a speck always remains. Though that speck is a mere morsel compared to what it once was, it still emits the brightness that made the original relationship an irresistible force. In the case of Erica and Vicky, they go from full-throttle, head-over heels in love through marriage, parenting, career change, divorce, and health crisis, until forty-some years after their start, we find them crossing paths in a chance meeting. Still, even in that nugget of what was once their entire lives, an unextinguished glow remains.

Though Bright Half Life is a short piece, running about seventy minutes, it tells us a great deal about the life Vicky and Erica shared. The play is composed of short snippets that travel back and forth in time over the 40-some years of their relationship. Some are as long as five minutes, but most are far more brief, in some cases a matter of seconds. Quite a few of the snippets, or even shorter excerpts from previous snippets, are repeated. In this way, a phrase, a bone of contention, a sheer delight, or some other nugget of memory filters Erica and Vicky's responses to new situations, as our minds replay tapes of past conversations and experiences as part of understanding the present. Biographies can portray life in a linear fashion, but the internal life of mind and heart is a far from linear event.

From the beginning, there are minefields to be crossed by Vicky and Erica as they forge their relationship. For one thing, when they meet, Vicky is the supervisor in an office where Erica is a temp employee. For another, Erica is an out lesbian, Vicky is a closeted bisexual. Then, Erica is white and Vicky is African-American. Vicky contends with being called an "oreo" by her black friends, and with Erica unwilling to accept Vicky's assertion that the oppression she experiences as a gay woman is less pervasive than what she experiences as a black woman, as she can chose to conceal being gay, but cannot conceal being black. While any one of those tensions might be the focus of an entire play, Barfield delegates just one scene to each. The scenes are well written, but inconclusive. We suspect the issues remain unresolved, simmering beneath the surface at all times, but we never return to them.

Beyond that, Vicky and Erica have different temperaments: Vicky is highly organized, prompt, goal-directed, and controlling, while Erica is scattered, tends to run late, spontaneous and has trouble settling on goals. These, more than the big issues cited above, seem to be the abrasives that wear away at their relationship, that trigger the half-life decomposition of their bonds. Vicky has the high pressure career, so Erica assumes responsibility for helping their twin daughters with school projects—but she is too disorganized to get to them, and Vicky, not very graciously, steps in. There are scenes that show how Vicky and Erica support each another, scenes of silliness together, and well played scenes that celebrate their physical desire for one another. Many things are positive in their shared life, and yet, bright as it is, it erodes.

The split-second timing that whips us back and forth through decades that take the two woman from anger to hilarity, from sadness to contentment—sometimes truly in a matter of seconds, calling for changes not only in content but in physical bearing and vocal timbre—requires highly focused direction that keeps everything moving in alignment, and director Ellen Fenster has seen to this. Further, she has two marvelous actors to work with: Sarah Agnew as Erica, and Jasmine Hughes as Vicky. Both convey the unique qualities of their respective characters while also showing that magnetic force that drew these two unlike women to each other. Agnew, never less than impressive, taps into Erica's constant search for herself—her drive to find herself in Vicky, and in their children, never quite enough. She is well matched by Hughes, who reveals Vicky's inner longings, but is unable or unwilling to give up the control that has allowed her to clear the unceasing hurdles society has placed in her path.

The set is almost non-existent: three oval platforms of differing heights that bring to mind the pedestals on which TV game shows display their prizes. But this is enough for Erica and Vicky to play out, and repeat as needed, the essential moments of their shared life, with help from sensitive lighting and sound cues that accompany the flight from one point in time to another.

Brief as it is, Bright Half Life feels packed full of information and feeling. This couple came together with hearts full of love and the best of intentions, yet find their relationship slowly whittled away, and Tanya Barfield has effectively conveyed the way that happens, not as a linear event, but as a reiterative process, fast forward and rewind, its course so diffuse that we can barely see it occur, only recognizing it looking back. This is not a play for those who insist on a chewy narrative with clear beginning, middle, and end. Its strength is in casting a floodlight on the circuitous routes by which we come together and fall apart.

Bright Half Life continues through February 21, 2016, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit

Writer: Tanya Barfield; Director: Ellen Fenster; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noel Raymond

Cast: Sarah Agnew (Erica), Jasmine Hughes (Vicky)