Robert Schneider in New Haven, Connecticut
9 January 2023
From her poignant family drama God Said This, winner of the 2018 Yale Drama Series, we learned that Leah Nanako Winkler as a dramatist of deep feelings, a dramatist willing to risk ridicule and forego tonal cohesion to honour the emotions of her characters.
Michele Selene Ang and Katherine Romans. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
For Winkler, feelings are legitimized by their intensity. In God Said This, ordinary events trigger extraordinary feelings. In her new play at Yale Rep, The Brightest Thing in the World, moments of extraordinary feeling, even if private, are treated as events in themselves.
Tellingly, The Brightest Thing in the World is set pre-Covid: 2016-2019. Like AIDS and the invention of the mobile phone, Covid has created a “before” and “after” for writers of fiction. If you’re writing ‘after,’ you’ve got to deal with it; if you’re writing ‘before,’ you can concentrate on other things.
The play begins with an extended and conscious flirtation with romantic comedy: Lane works in a bakery/coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky where Steph comes to write. Lane begins a slow seduction of the other woman by comping her specially made cinnamon rolls and gradually revealing her whimsical and engaging personality.
Katherine Romans and Megan Hill. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
After a while, Steph tells her she doesn’t have to introduce herself every time. On the next occasion, Lane puts on a deep voice and pretends to be Satan: “You told her not to introduce herself anymore. So, I ate her.” Steph plays the rebound nicely: “Did she taste good”? It’s not an exceptionally funny exchange but, like much of the rest of the play, it relies on the unforced charm of the cast to work dramatically.
The play takes a sharp turn toward serious when Lane reveals that she’s a heroin addict. She doesn’t own the bakery; she works there as occupational therapy for her addiction. The bakery/coffee shop, in fact, is run by the treatment centre across the street that exists to help addicts. Somehow Steph, who works as a freelance reporter on a local paper, never figured this out.
Wow… I love how all this time you thought I was a super-accomplished person when I’m just a scummy sack of shit with a good heart who likes bad shit and wants to be loved. (pause) You don’t have to talk to me anymore, I totally understand.
There is zero pressure, and you don’t have to feel bad.
I’m so, so sorry. I just…totally thought you knew.
I’ll leave you alone now.
Steph responds to this confession with one of her own: she had a child as a teenager:
Her name is Bea.
I got pregnant when I was seventeen
The first and last time I had sex with a penis.
I couldn’t get an abortion safely.
My parents disowned me.
A good friend’s family took me in
and I somehow finished out senior year
with a terrible GPA.
But I got into Western because they take everyone.
So I took out a loan
Got a degree in journalism.
While Bea stayed back with my mom and dad.
She’s fourteen now.
She doesn’t consider me her parent.
But we have a relationship.
She calls me Steph.
When I’m not hanging out with Bea –
I freelance at the paper
And work at the flower shop.
Waiting for the next time I can see her
And lately, you.
I am still angry at my parents.
But my house is full of flowers that I never thought I could reach.
Lane, I still think you’re beautiful.
And I think –
We’re all recovering constantly from something if not the other.
The confessions are mis-matched; motherhood isn’t usually reprehensible, but Steph wants to come clean in the moment and that impulse trumps any desire the author may have had to preserve symmetry. The two women exaggerate their faults to move closer to one another. As they take this path into the deep woods of a relationship, we want to defend them. We want to tell Lane: “You may have learned to make pastries in a half-way house, but you know how to make pastries!” and Steph: “They may pay you next-to-nothing for your articles, but you know how to write!”
I’ve quoted the whole speech to show how unforced Winkler’s dialogue appears on the page. She doesn’t tie her characters up in objectives and intentions; they remain free agents of themselves. They don’t make speeches to each other—at least, not speeches that Arthur Miller or Edward Albee would recognize as ‘speeches.’ Similarly, her scenes don’t appear to have topics so much as consequences. Somehow the things are said and the story advances, but with no overt prodding or string-pulling on the author’s part.
Despite their obvious devotion to one another, oral confessions of love and admiration are important. After they move in together, Lane complains that Steph only says “I love you” when she’s drunk. But isn’t her devotion obvious in other ways? With so much talk about feelings—and talk about talking about feelings—audience members may feel starved for action. Only when there’s a life to save right now does the oral imperative yield to another sort of urgency.
The third character in the play is Lane’s older sister, Della, supportive, clever and conventional, a cheerleader for the group.
It’s really wild though like.
I’m like, proud you know.
You getting promoted.
Lane getting into grad school.
Me… finally dating.
We’re like kind of killing it the three of us.
In a cute scene Lane and Steph build her up before a first date with a personal injury lawyer she met online.
Winkler intervenes so subtly in the drama of her characters that only an interview with the playwright printed in the programme conveys authorial intention:
I think that the theatre industry and audiences on the coasts specifically have a tendency to make work that fetichizes places like Kentucky to feel smart. I think people with substance abuse disorders are fetishized in a similar way. 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. It seems like smug cosplay and I’m allergic to smug. I like to create underestimated characters who subvert and exceed expectations.
Point taken: Lane’s addiction breaks her—she’s not a broken person who, in consequence, becomes an addict. Without resorting to stereotypes, Winkler reminds us that the hypocrisy of addicts is limitless. Confessions of love are easy, but revelations of drug usage (or claims of abstinence) are balky and full of subterfuge.
Winkler is a first-rate writer who appears to be more than usually at the mercy of her characters. It’s not a bad thing for a playwright to follow her creations up hill and down dale, but it’s sometimes dangerous. We can only hope they’ll lead her to glory.
The actors at Yale are excellent: Katherine Romans is winning and vibrant as Lane. Only a page-long recitation of everything she’s tried to find relief from myofascial pain syndrome lets us know why the character finally tried heroin and became addicted. Michele Selene Ang’s Steph vacillates amusingly between enthusiasm and self-loathing. Megan Hill wisely doesn’t try to steal the show as Della—the part won’t let her. Director Margot Bordelon has coaxed warm and spontaneous performances from the three actors without ever parking them in the yellow zone of deadly earnestness.
Curiously, Bordelon doesn’t seem to care that people talk slooooow in Kentucky; at Yale Rep the actors talk a blue streak, especially in the bakery scenes where the jokes might have drawn laughter if they didn’t go by so quickly.
Cat Raynor’s scenic designs for the bakery and Della’s house look deliberately provincial. Travis Chinick’s costumes must have been perfect because I don’t remember noticing them as costumes and, indeed, scarcely as clothes. The only exception was Lane’s backwards blue baseball cap which I found adorable.