Sweetness and Light

Sweetness and Light

“Classic rom-com” is the way Yale Repertory Theatre bills The Brightest Thing in the World, a commissioned world premiere by the playwright Leah Nanako Winkler. The play opens in a cheerful Lexington, Kentucky coffee shop called Revival, where a series of sweet, funny vignettes between Lane (Katherine Romans), the baker behind the counter, and Steph (Michele Selene Ang), a daily patron, betrays their feelings for each other from the start, though they aren’t as sure of that as the audience is. Classic rom-com, for sure. Both Lane and Steph keep their darkest secrets close to the chest until after their romance has begun—until after it would be hard to walk away. Also classic rom-com.

But The Brightest Thing in the World treads some serious ground that classic rom-coms avoid—in particular, the devastating effects of heroin addiction. Winkler, who used her commission to interview fellow Kentuckians “who have been affected by this war,” writes convincingly about what it feels like to use:

It’s like… all the stuff that’s on your mind stopping you from being happy is put on mute—and the brain tunnel that opens and closes letting out little spurts of joy into your dopamine receptor is let loose and you feel like nothing matters and you’re at peace until it wears off. Until you’re left unbearably… open.

This may not sound like “com,” but The Brightest Thing is surprisingly funny, especially in the hands of Megan Hill as Lane’s older sister, Della, who insists she’s perfectly happy in her late thirties as a professional woman living alone, and means it. Della is a proxy for Lane’s and her own mother, having nursed Lane through some very bad times, so it’s not surprising she’d prefer to have only herself to care for now. In fact, The Brightest Thing is partly a play about mothers and daughters and the ways in which they hurt each other, even though no mother/daughter pair ever appears onstage.

One of the delights of this show, for me, was seeing a production written, directed, and acted entirely by women—something I can’t recall ever seeing before. And it’s not because The Brightest Thing has a feminist message that somehow requires it to be a production of and by women. This is a universal story, just as stories of and by men used to be considered exclusively universal. Della’s boyfriend and Lane’s and Steph’s fathers are characters in the sense that they’re mentioned. But their mothers and Steph’s daughter play a larger imagined role in the story.

Also refreshing is an early argument between Lane and Steph about God and progressive politics and extremism that eschews the all-too-common rigidity of values usually on display in the theater and in Hollywood. Winkler, who was raised partly in Lexington, told the production’s dramaturgs in an interview, “I think that the theater industry and audiences on the coasts specifically have a tendency to make work that fetishizes places like Kentucky to feel smart… I’m honestly sick of watching millionaire movie stars make themselves their version of ugly and poor to play southern or midwestern people who struggle with the disease of addiction.” Her characters in The Brightest Thing are instead funny, beautiful, loving people who could be any one of us.

Aside from any East Coast biases it may gently poke fun at, The Brightest Thing is quite traditional in its writing and production, one reason it’s bound to be a crowd-pleaser. Nevertheless, coming from the youngest generation of playwrights, even its conventions feel a little bit new again. There’s the obvious—a love affair between two women that doesn’t have to comment on the fact that it’s a love affair between two women—but also a subtle mastery at work beneath the deceptive lightness of a coffee shop comedy. With gentle touches, Winkler often foreshadows later turns in the story, making you wonder what else you might have missed. Sudden shifts into scenes that aren’t really scenes at all but, rather, emotions made manifest catch the audience off-guard amid falling flowers and pulsing lights.

To get the most brilliance out of The Brightest Thing in the World, don’t look away.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images photographed by Joan Marcus and provided courtesy of the Yale Repertory Theatre.

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