By Jenn McKee, EncoreMichigan
If nothing else, Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” now playing at the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale, re-affirms how foolhardy it is to engage in hypothetical discussions about how you would respond when faced with a difficult, life-threatening set of circumstances.
Say, for instance, you were living in Berlin in 1932. Knowing what we know now, it’s all too easy to presume that you’d be part of, or at least help those in, the resistance. But in “Bright Room,” middle-aged Weimar movie actress Agnes Eggling (Jamie Warrow), while intellectually aligned with the Communists, never manages to commit to the party, and yet also harshly judges those who flee the country out of fear.
But before Agnes and her friends are forced to make this choice, they gather regularly at her apartment in a kind of salon, including her live-in lover, a Hungarian filmmaker named Husz (Jon Ager); opium-addicted film actress Paulinka (Christa Coulter); homosexual psychologist Baz (Richard Payton); and Communist artist Annabella Gotchling (Melissa Beckwith).
As Hitler quickly amasses power, and suspicion and fear take hold, each member of this salon must make a choice, and Agnes is mysteriously haunted late at night by the hungry ghost of an old woman (Connie Cowper).
Meanwhile, a contemporary Long Islander, Zillah Katz (Lisa Melinn), fed up with the policies and attitudes of the Reagan/Bush era, goes abroad seeking out ghosts, and lands in Agnes’ former apartment.
If this last link sounds a little forced and unnecessary – well, you’re right. For while it’s compelling to see one of Kushner’s early, pre-”Angels in America” works – which, not surprisingly, shares many things in common with the playwright’s masterpiece – Kushner fails to make his trademark elements work together all that affectingly in “Bright Room.”
Yes, being a Kushner play, there is impassioned, intellectually rigorous philosophical discussion among the characters; there are ghosts that collapse time while also demonstrating how history repeats itself; and the collision of the political and the personal forces characters to make tough, life-altering choices.
And by the time Kushner wrote “Angels,” he was capable of marshaling these forces into an epic piece of theater that engaged the heart as well as the mind; but with “Bright Room,” the heart remains largely untouched.
This is not for lack of effort or talent on the Ringwald stage. Warrow is the fulcrum of the show, appearing in nearly every scene, and she skillfully elicits sympathy for Agnes’ painful predicament. Perhaps my favorite performances on opening night, however, were those of Coulter and Payton – supporting players who provided some much-appreciated spice and spark whenever they appeared on stage.
Warrow designed Agnes’ spare-but-functional apartment on the Ringwald’s stage; Vince Kelley’s wonderful Weimar era costumes place us more viscerally in the play’s historical time; and Joe Plambeck’s lighting – particularly when suggesting that the Reichstage fire is happening outside Agnes’ windows – adds another subtle, but important, layer to the production.
As much as possible, director Joe Bailey keeps the two and a half hour production moving (including quick scene changes) while never sacrificing clarity, and the show, as a whole, looks and feels polished. My main quibble with the direction concerned the staging of the play’s most heated exchanges – moments when the tone seemed self-consciously overwrought.
Kushner had based “Bright Room” on Bertolt Brecht’s “The Private Life of the Master Race,” and Brecht’s influence is on display by way of “Bright Room”‘s illusion-shattering projections, which act as connecting tissue between scenes and provide the audience with contextual information for the next scene; and by way of its apparent intention to undercut the audience’s emotional involvement in the story, thus leaving the audience, in theory, more tightly focused on the political and ethical questions raised by the play.
But – in my humble opinion, anyway – important arguments that are conveyed within the context of a play have more impact when you care about the people making them.
Get showtimes and tickets at EncoreMichigan.com.
Jenn McKee reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.