A bedraggled young woman barges into a seemingly deserted Alaska cabin in the midst of a raging snowstorm, a frenzied look on her face, a torn, filthy wedding dress hanging off her like a grubby old rag. Suddenly becoming aware of a blanket-hooded figure seated on the cabin’s sole bed, she launches into a stream-of-consciousness monolog describing in detail how she kept from getting frostbite on the way from a dead car to the stranger’s cabin following days upon days of near nonstop driving, with only rare pauses for gas, a pee, a candy bar, or a Coke. Eventually, the combination of sugar withdrawal (“This is a Mars bars tremble,” she explains when she can’t get her hands to stop shaking) and multiple swigs from a whiskey bottle left conveniently atop the stranger’s kitchen table, the young woman crumples gracefully to the floor in a faint. Only then does the stranger rise and reveal himself to be a handsome, bearded young man with an unconscious woman in the middle of his house.

Thus begins Cindy Lou Johnson’s utterly riveting comedy-drama Brilliant Traces, now being revived (and quite terrifically so) at Hollywood’s Lounge Theatre.


Brilliant Traces is hardly the first play to take two very different people, put them in the same space for a certain length of time, and let the sparks fly. Like the heroine and hero in Terrence McNally’s Frankie And Johnny In The Claire De Lune, both Rosannah and Henry have clearly been scarred by life. (The play’s title comes from a poem by Avah Pevlor Johnson, which goes “Let my scars leave brilliant traces, for my highborn soul seeks its hell—in high places.”) Like any playwright worth her salt, Johnson parcels out her clues ever so slowly, allowing us time to make our own guesses along the way.

What has propelled Rosannah from an aborted Arizona wedding to Nowhere, Alaska? What has driven Harry to this cabin four hundred miles from the oil rig where he works as a cook, one which he retreats to every seven weeks for two weeks of escape from life? Could it be that this chance meeting might prove each character’s salvation, or will they end up no closer to happiness than they first started out?

It is to playwright Johnson’s credit that Rosannah and Henry keep us in suspense from start to finish, even as their repartee keeps us laughing out loud pretty much throughout—or at least until the pair’s many onion skins have been peeled away. Note to reader: Bring Kleenex along for the end of the peeling. You’ll likely find yourself needing them when those secrets get revealed.

A recent New York production altered the Rosannah-Henry dynamics by casting the latter as a grizzled septuagenarian, an interesting choice to be sure though one at odds with the playwright’s intentions to have both characters in their mid to late twenties. (Rosannah and Henry were originated in 1989 by then age-appropriate Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson.) Director John Hindman’s wise decision to stick with the script keeps the story romcom-adjacent, though to call Brilliant Traces a “romantic comedy” would be to pigeonhole a considerably more complex work.

The spellbinding Tessa Ferrer plays Rosannah at the Lounge, and anyone who saw the Best Lead Actress Scenie winner in last year’s Proof can expect to be astonished by another tour de force performance. Opposite Ferrer is L.A. newcomer Andy Wagner, and if Johnson’s script reserves most of the play’s scene-stealing moments for the far more garrulous Rosannah, Wagner’s work as the reclusive Henry proves eminently watchable throughout, with a gut-wrenching eleventh hour monolog affording the young leading man his own chance to dazzle

So much of Ferrer’s performance as Catherine in Proof was internal that it’s a treat to see her in the far showier role of Rosannah, one she plays with at least as many colors as a rainbow. There aren’t many actresses who can make the eating of a bowl of soup positively mesmerizing, or who can transition seamlessly from laughter to sobs—and Ferrer is one of them.

In contrast to Ferrer’s out-there Rosannah, Wagner’s tightly-wound Henry keeps most of his emotions hidden, though the actor’s eyes speak volumes about repressed pain, wounds which Wagner finally lays bare in a doozy of a monolog, one which had this reviewer in tears.

That these two very attractive leads have great romantic, sexual chemistry is an added plus, though one absolutely in line with Johnson’s script.

Hindman’s direction here is as inspired as were his stagings of Proof and Crimes Of The Heart at Open Fist Theatre (next door to the Lounge), and a post-performance chat with the director reveals that several of the production’s most effective moments were his own subtle but highly effective additions to Johnson’s script. (Without giving too much away, one involves lighting, another a prop that gets thrown.) Even the payoff of play’s final few seconds, terrific already in Johnson’s original, become truly breathtaking as staged by Hindman and executed by a fearless Ferrer and Wagner.

Scenic designer Zachary B. Guiler has brought Henry’s bare-bones wood cabin to finely detailed life, aided by Tamara Becker’s cleverly chosen props. (The brick walled Lounge Theatre adds to the effect.) Elizabeth Godley’s lighting is a winner too, as are Alex Blair and Claudia Gomez’s costumes—for Henry, precisely what the recluse would wear around the house, and for Rosannah, the grimiest wreck of a wedding dress on record. Perhaps best of all is sound designer Jeff Polunas’s subtle underscoring of the action with a wind that sounds at once authentically Alaskan and blisteringly frigid.

Brilliant Traces is produced by Caitlin R. Campbell. Alyssa Escalante is stage manager and Jessica Cymerman is assistant director.

Though it debuted nearly twenty-five years ago and has had multiple regional stagings since then, I must confess to not having heard of Brilliant Traces until its current run at the Lounge. Johnson’s two-hander is one I couldn’t be more thrilled to have discovered, and as directed by Hindman and brought to memorable life by its two young stars, it makes for a humdinger of a ride.

Note: The marvelous Rae Foster (Babe in Hindman’s Crimes Of The Heart) will be playing Rosannah on March 3 and 4.

Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 24, 2012
Photos: Tommy Burruss

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