Thomas Piper and Stephanie Dodd begin play rehearsal each day by squaring off with each other. Piper lifts Dodd into his arms, around his back and down his front, before gently lowering her to the floor, engaging in an intimate pas de deux that is an apt metaphor for all the issues they’re about to hash out in the show. They must first trust each other, if they’re to let each other in.
The show is “Brilliant Traces,” a darkly funny drama written by Cindy Lou Johnson, that will be performed Feb. 4-7 at the Stonington Opera House as part of the winter season at Opera House Arts.
Piper and Dodd, both seen in OHA’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last summer, play the characters Henry and Rosannah, two lost souls stranded in a cabin in the middle of an Alaskan blizzard. How they ended up in the cabin is only part of the story; the rest is what happens inside.
Director Peter Richards, a New York resident who has spent summers in Stonington since his childhood, chose the play for two reasons. It’s a fast-paced drama full of crackling, often humorous dialogue; and some of its themes — isolation, escape, and how difficult it is to connect with another person — ring true to the experiences of Mainers in winter.
“It’s a story that I think a lot of people in Maine can relate to, because, superficially, it’s a story about cabin fever,” said Richards. “There is a little bit of that feeling, that you’re stuck in the middle of a blizzard, and there’s no way out. But the things that can happen when you’re forced to look at the situation you’re in with the people you’re with can make for great drama.”
Dodd plays Rosannah, a young woman left at the altar standing in her shimmering wedding dress. She gets in her car and drives from Arizona to Alaska, stopping when her car breaks down in the snow. She trudges unknown miles in stiletto heels until she collapses at the doorstep of Henry, a man who has retreated from nearly all forms of human relationships, to live alone in an isolated cabin in the wilderness. Once Rosannah has recovered from exhaustion, the interpersonal pyrotechnics begin.
“It’s an opposites attract story. Both Henry and Rosannah are escaping something, but they are incredibly different personalities,” said Richards. “How they work through their various issues and come to connect is where the heart of the play is. Both these characters carry a huge load on their backs. I think a lot of people can identify with their various issues.”
The sparse but striking set, designed by Shannon Zura of the University of Southern Maine, comprises the few things found in Henry’s cabin: a bed, cabinets, a sink, a stove and a table. The backdrop is a large, hand-painted version of a poem the playwright’s mother wrote, from which the play’s title is taken. Like the set, the images presented in the play are elemental. Dodd’s portrayal of Rosannah is luminous and vulnerable, while the wary, equally fragile Henry is captured by Piper with a bearish kind of grumpiness.
Winter in Maine is a psychologically trying time of year. The day-to-day grind of cold, precipitation and wind takes a toll on many, so it’s no surprise that many escape into broad comedy, musical theater and less difficult forms of art. The people at Opera House Arts say, however, that winter is a perfect time to take a deeper look into the things that hit a little closer to home.
“I think it’s important to have serious drama at this time of year,” said Linda Nelson, executive director of OHA. “People like to go to musicals and lighter fare because it’s escapism. But it’s really invigorating to see human feelings and issues onstage. It forces you to look at your own life. There’s a certain kind of gravity attached to live theater, that you don’t always get with TV or film.”
“Brilliant Traces” is OHA’s first professional winter production. In years past, the organization has presented staged readings during the colder months. This winter seemed like a good chance to try to bring a production on the level of OHA’s many summer shows to the opera house.
Artistic director Judith Jerome said OHA is committed to providing year-round events for residents of Stonington-Deer Isle and for Down East Maine in general.
“Every year, we try to do a little more in the winter, because our summer is so incredibly busy. We don’t want to overlook our year-round population,” said Jerome. “Of course, actually doing productions in the winter is a challenge, simply because we’re at the mercy of the weather. But we never wanted to be a seasonal organization. We want everyone in the community to have access to the same high-quality productions.”
“Brilliant Traces” will be presented at 7 p.m. Feb. 4-6 and 2 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Stonington Opera House. Tickets for Thursday’s show are $10; $20 for the rest. In a special cross-promotion with the Penobscot Theatre Company, those who purchase a ticket to “Brilliant Traces” may get an extra ticket free with the purchase of one ticket to PTC’s production of “Spunk,” set for Feb. 17-March 7, at the Bangor Opera House. For more information, visit www.operahousearts.org.