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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Theatre review: Brilliant Traces doesn’t hold to its promise

Actors deserve a better vehicle to showcase their talent

The opening of Cindy Lou Johnson’s Brilliant Traces holds an intriguing promise. A young woman arrives pounding on the door of a remote Alaska cabin during a winter storm wearing a wedding dress. “Let me in! I’m a person in serious trouble!” she screams before bursting in.

Thus begins this two-hander where bride-to-be Rosannah (Marie Queenan) and the cabin’s lone(ly) occupant Henry Harry (Sean Depner) collide in what should be an exploration of isolation and our desire for connection.

The problem is, in the production currently on stage at the Havana Theatre, we never feel for this odd couple thrown together under extraordinary circumstances. Instead, it becomes an exercise for two young actors to explore their craft while leaving its audiences very much on the sidelines.

Not that stretching one’s acting muscles is always a bad thing as other shows of its kind, with intense and meaty roles, can reap enormous benefits for an audience. In this production, however, it felt at times as if the audience was only a necessary afterthought.

Part of the problem lies with director Muriel Kathryn Hunter’s decision to emphasize the howling blizzard that is taking place outside the cabin. While it may have also been a metaphor for the storm taking place inside the lives of these two disparate characters, it at times overwhelmed the actors on stage. Coupled with Marie Queenan’s hysterics at the play’s opening, the first few minutes of dialogue once she enters the cabin were all but lost to the howling wind on a loop. Though a relatively quick 80 minutes without intermission, it rapidly became an irritating and unnecessary distraction. The decision to cool the usually overly warm Havana Theatre before the play starts, however, was an inspired nod to the play’s location.

While the suspension of belief might be a necessity, leaps of logic are another matter. With much of it central to Johnson’s story, there remains a risk of giving away too much, but small things begin to add up quickly. Why is Rosannah’s dress so pristine? How is it no one noticed at the Canadian and U.S. borders this woman was dressed in a wedding gown and obviously in distress? Why does Henry not immediately ask more questions of this mad woman who arrives at his doorstep? Why does Rosannah spit in Henry’s tea? If Henry’s scars are metaphorical, why does he proceed to show her his skin where no wounds are visible? Why does Rosannah take Henry’s word for the whiteout conditions outside without checking for herself?

Johnson also repeats herself, albeit with a different emotional spin. It might make for a challenging exercise for the actors, but again, it does little to bring us into the story. As a result, we are always aware we are watching a play. If a desire for connection is at the base of Johnson’s drama, we need to believe they are offering each other what they need to feed that connection. Unfortunately, that bond never materializes. And while there may be underlying notes of fantasy within Johnson’s text, these moments are all but impossible to differentiate.

Queenan and Depner are capable actors, but they deserve a better script to showcase their talent. Perhaps one that both includes the audience and fulfills its initial promise.

Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson. Directed by Mariel Kathryn Hunter. A Ripe Girl Entertainment presentation of a Fort Heart Production. On stage at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until January 4. Visit for tickets and information.

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