In The Light Years, artists continue to create ambitious work despite their worlds crumbling around them.
That’s true in more ways than one. The Debate Society’s time-hopping new play, open now at Playwrights Horizons, follows two separate (but connected) characters working on two different Chicago world’s fairs. The first thread, set in 1893, follows Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld), an electrician, and his wife, Adeline (Aya Cash) as the former works on the creation of a theatre at the 1893 World’s Fair. The job is under the direction of an over-the-top theater director, Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto), who is the kind of thespian who would likely describe himself – loudly and enthusiastically – as a “gentleman of the theatre.”
The other thread finds us forty years later, in 1933, as Chicago gears up for another world’s fair, this time in the shadow of the Great Depression. Here, we find Lou (Ken Barnett), a struggling thirty-something musician who writes advertisement jingles and would probably get along well with Willy Loman. Lou lives with his wife, Ruth (Aya Cash, who also plays Adeline), and their 11-year-old son Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz).
These dual time periods create interesting opportunities for both performance and design. For a start, the way that the two couples interact is fundamentally different. The formal (though sweet) atmosphere which surrounds Hillary and Adeline in 1893 is replaced by a far more sexually charged one with Lou and Ruth, forty years later. The difference, brought out all the more by Cash playing both wives, is fascinating to watch. Two distinct kinds of affection are on display here.
The set (Laura Jellinek) and costumes (Michael Krass) take advantage of the time period jumps, too. Big metal machinery flies across the stage. The “Moon Cart,” a replica of the moon that Hillary builds for the theater, is covered with vintage light bulbs, plucked from the days when Edison bulbs lit more than just hipster bars and coffee shops. The milkman’s glass bottle becomes a jar of powder when hard times hit. All of this adds up to a very exact sense of time period.
On the left side of a wood frame that envelops the stage sits an illuminated, scrolling sign. This curious contraption provides what are essentially title cards, marking transitions between the two time periods and filling in story details that we don’t see happen onstage. Because it proves to be a key device in telling entire sections of the story, it avoids feeling gimmicky. Overall, the design shines. The only times where this isn’t the case is during several brief moments where the action moves offstage and onto the mezzanine and the walkways of the house. Because these areas of the theater look like, well, the interior of Playwrights Horizons in 2017, these. moments feel at odds with the rest of the production’s period specificity.
Even with such a great sense of time period, deep connections form between these worlds and our own. Both Hillary and Lou are artists of a certain kind, and both are driven to create their work despite troubling times — Lou’s trouble is the Great Depression; for Hillary, it’s the Panic of 1893, another depression. Still, each takes pride in his work. In one fleeting moment, Hillary says to Adeline, “I get to, with my own hands, make something that will be known forever.” (It’s moments like these that also make Hillary’s name feel less than coincidental, and maybe a bit too deliberate.)
Yet, despite their mutual drives, neither man ends up realizing his ambitions. Lou is continually unable to make enough money from his jingles, and Hillary’s work is all for naught (we are informed at the start of the play that Steele MacKaye’s show will never happen). In the end, their works is what sustains them, and the blockage of that ability ultimately destroys them.The fact that outside forces — economic or other — are what ultimately undo each man hints at the idea that this kind of creation can only go so far, and, when it comes to life and death, can do very little indeed. While it is inherently interesting that a piece of theater should point that out, I was personally more drawn to another, simpler takeaway: the very idea that an electrician should be viewed with such reverence for his creativity. That suggestion, that we should look for and admire new kinds of creativity in different kinds of people, feels timely.