Rebecca Lingafelter's first response to Bright Half Life was confusion.
"I read it almost a year and a half ago, and at first I was like, 'What's happening? What's happening?'" she says of Tanya Barfield's play, which she's directing at Profile Theatre.
Her reaction isn't surprising. Like a VHS tape being rewound and fast-forwarded over the course of 46 turbulent years, Bright Half Life journeys restlessly through time, forging a seemingly disjointed path from 1985 to 2031. Yet ultimately Lingafelter realized that "the puzzle pieces of the narrative that Tanya's written start to come together. By the end, I was weeping."
She probably won't be the only one. Bright Half Life—which opens at Profile on Saturday—is about the ecstasies and agonies of a romance between Erica (Chantal DeGroat) and Vicky (Maureen Porter) that endures through both marriage and parenthood, only to collapse in divorce. It's a daunting narrative for a director to tackle. "The script is one of the most challenging I've ever worked on," Lingafelter says. "It asks for a kind of virtuosity that's physical, mental and emotional."
That virtuosity is demanded by Barfield's decision to move fluidly through time, shuffling non-chronologically through key moments in Vicky and Erica's relationship, whether they're skydiving or standing in an elevator. To make sense of it all, Lingafelter relied on a timeline of events that Barfield created, although Barfield's production notes on the play may have added as many challenges as they alleviated.
"She puts in the production notes that there should be minimal sets and no props," Lingafelter points out. Cue scenic designer Peter Ksander, who dreamt up a set that was minimalist but still served the emotional trajectory of Vicky and Erica's lives. "The set is essentially a blue square in the middle of a void," Lingafelter explains. "It's as if a blue searchlight had just pinpointed this particular spot to find these two women and their story."
Of course, like many of Barfield's plays, Bright Half Life is also a politicized story that reaches beyond the inner lives of its characters. For Lingafelter and her team, that meant conducting research, "particularly on the gay rights movement." Lingafelter also thinks Bright Half Life is political because it's being performed during a volcanic election season. "In this time of divisiveness and vitriol…to spend an evening with two people who are doing everything they can to live in communion with another person is pretty special—and kind of radical right now," she believes.
Bright Half Life also marks the beginning of the end of a journey for Profile—it's the last full play of the theater's season devoted to the work of Barfield, who grew up in Portland. But despite its focus on the withering of Erica and Vicky's marriage, Bright Half Life is not a downbeat note, as the title's reference to particle decay suggests. As Lingafelter puts it, with a metaphorical flourish that sums up Vicky and Erica's compassion for each other: "The beautiful thing about particle decay is that as particles decay, they give off light."
SEE IT: Bright Half Life plays at Profile Theatre, 1507 SW Morrison St., profiletheatre.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, Oct. 29-Nov. 13. Additional show 11 am Wednesday, Nov. 2. $20-$36.