Theater Review: “The Half-Light” — A Powerful Excursion into the Spirit World

By David Greenham

The Half-Light is a play about ghosts that, while offering intimations of mortality, ends up exuding a charming and infectious romantic spirit.

The Half-Light by Monica Wood. Directed by Sally Wood. Scenic design by Anita Stewart. Lighting design by Bryon Winn. Costume design by Kathleen P. Brown. Sound design by Seth Asa Sengal. Produced by Portland Stage Company, 25 A Forest Avenue, Portland, ME, through March 24.

Maggie Mason and Moira Driscoll in the Portland Stage Production of “The Half-Light.” Photo: Aaron Flacke.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

— William Butler Yeats, 1899

Following a year of development, Maine novelist and playwright Monica Wood’s latest drama, The Half-Light, is receiving its premiere via the Portland Stage. The script examines the reality of a ‘spiritual’ world that many view with a skeptical eye.

Iris (Maggie Mason) is the secretary in an office of a small community college in Maine. During the day, she juggles the mundane needs of adjunct and absent professors as well as their confounding students. At night, she has otherworldly duties — contacting an ‘invisible’ world. And now she is facing a change in status: Iris’s psychic mentor. Isaac Black, has died. A mystic enigma, with “black eyeliner, a weird accent, pushing eighty, and looking like a demented raccoon” Black ordained Iris as his successor, the person in Maine most suited to carry on his work  — of talking with ghosts. This move up is welcomed by Iris’s friend Helen (Moira Driscoll) and dismissed by Irish literature professor Andrew (Brent Askari).

Quietly, however, Iris is honored – empowered even –  to become a major player in what many consider to be a weird legacy. As the plot moves along, Teresa (Wilma Rivera), Helen’s disappointing daughter, turns up. She’s an alcoholic, living in a dumpy apartment with her deadbeat “boyfriend slash enabler,” and grabbing any help she can from her angry, heart-broken parents.

Quickly, real and imagined spirits make their appearances. Iris discovers the ghosts of her own past and failed marriage; Helen is haunted by manifestations of her guilt regarding her responsibility for her daughter’s failings;  Teresa’s apartment is definitely inhabited by ghosties. The most tragic of all: Andrew is hit, sudden and shockingly, in the face with ghosts.  While The Half-Light seems “enwrought with golden and silver light,” beneath the light and comic façade of the play sits flickers of a dark and sorrowful drama that warns us that we must “tread softly.” Endings are beginnings and, as Andrew reminds us, “showing up is not nothing.”

Director Sally Wood (no relation to the playwright) helms a strong staging that jumps frequently from location to location,  hopping through time and space. Maggie Mason anchors the production as Iris — a particularly reluctant hero. Moira Driscoll’s Helen gets most of the gag lines and delivers them with aplomb. Wilma Rivera’s Teresa moves from failure to stability convincingly. Askari, an intriguingly watchable actor, beautifully captures the emptiness of loss — and the half-hearted steps toward  a new start.

Wilma Rivera in a scene from the Portland Stage production of “The Half-Light.” Photo: Aaron Flacke.

I usually praise Anita Stewart’s stage designs, but not for this outing. Visually, there’s the cleverness and craft Portland Stage audiences have come to expect; the set pieces move in and out seamlessly. But the minimal set comes off as sparse, detached, and strangely ungrounded. That is, until the final scene, which is stunning. Bryon Winn’s lighting and (I assume) projections are appropriately ‘mystical,’ expertly sculpted to suggest several layers of reality/unreality at the same time. Kathleen Brown’s costumes are fine, though Iris’s green dress is pivotal and  it’s rather bland alongside the other costumes. The most serious technical fault lies with Seth Asa Sengel. The choice of music is interesting, but the sound and transitions are, too often, jarring. So much of the production was pulling me into the lightly spooky story — the sound design pushed me away.

Despite the production’s quirks and quarks, Wood’s writing carries the day. She comfortably maintains multiple levels of meaning. Her dialogue is accessible, littered with striking images, and nimbly sneaks in exposition and character revelations.  The most moving moments are quiet and reflective exchanges that gently cause your pulse rate to increase. Best of all, Wood balances the play’s intimations of darkness with plenty of humor, and the performers make the most of it. Driscoll’s Helen excels at Lucille Ball slapstick, Rivera’s Theresa suffers terribly but the character is filled with sass; and Mason’s Iris and (especially) Askeri’s Andrew draw on their deadpan delivery to generate the biggest guffaws in the show. The result is a play about ghosts that, while offering intimations of mortality, ends up exuding a charming and infectious romantic spirit.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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