The world premiere of Two Lights by Brett Busang is onstage at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. It is featured on the South Stage, an intimate annex where the theater often presents new works and readings. Produced and directed by Brandy Jones, Two Lights tells the story of a marriage at a crossroads and a woman on the edge.
The setting is a beach cottage on Cape Cod, where Al (Jake Mailey) and his wife, Jen (Leslie “Vanessa” AnnRenee), are winding down another summer. Al is a famous artist who’s in a slump. Jen, an artist in her own right, is far more prolific yet completely unknown. While Al’s paintings hang in museums, Jen’s work stays locked away in a closet. As the play progresses, we realize that it’s not just her paintings Jen has stifled for decades.
When the lights come up, Al and Jen are going through the motions. She’s dusting. He’s puttering. Then a knock comes on the door and their world is set to experience a seismic shift. The visitor is Clarice (Julya Bondarenko Demidova), their next-door neighbor, who’s come bearing a gift. Before long, the polite small talk gives way to soul-wrenching revelations. Clarice has just been dealt a shocking blow and Jen is compelled to help her. The summer neighbors, who have enjoyed never having to get to know each other, are suddenly inexorably linked. As the women form a bond, Jen begins to question herself, her art and her marriage. Jen and Clarice wander the dunes, drink too much and collect sea shells, which leads to the question: Will Jen stay stuck in her shell like a solitary mollusk or will she break free? Then again, after 30 years of being married to a cold fish who hogs the spotlight, living alone sounds pretty good.
Busang, an artist as well as a novelist and playwright, based Al and Jen on the painter Edward Hopper and his wife, Jo, who was also an artist. In the program notes, Busang writes that he always suspected there was artistic rivalry between the two. In Two Lights, that rivalry, long suppressed, doesn’t just bubble to the surface — it explodes. The title nods to the different “lights,” or color palettes, favored by the husband and wife and that reflect their personalities. Al is all cold blues and greens. Jen’s work is filled with warm reds and yellows. Can they live happily ever after or at least peacefully coexist? Can Jen remain Al’s wife and become her true self, which is to say, a gifted artist deserving of recognition?
There are some beautiful moments in the production, and the play raises poignant questions that will resonate with audiences. The cast, which also includes Clayton McLannock as Clarice’s husband, tackles the subject matter with heart. The crew, including light and sound designer Pat Lawler, set builder Bob Decker and Jones, who acts as set designer as well as producer, creates a tidy little world in contrast to the emotional turmoil. As a new work, Two Lights is finding its legs. Theater often gives us tried-and-true material that we have seen time and again. It is tremendously important to take a risk on the new. The works may not be perfect, but without them, theater would be the same old thing, stuck in its shell.
Two Lights plays through April 30 at Elite Theatre Company, 2731 S. Victoria Ave.,Oxnard. For tickets and more information, call 483-5118 or visit www.elitetheatre.org.