Picture, if you will, a modest suburban kitchen. At the counter is a woman looking at food cans and either packing them or throwing them away. She writes in a spiral-bound notebook as a knock at the door interrupts. Frightened, she grabs a knife and stands expectantly when a voice calls to her. She opens the door, a woman enters, and you enter with her into a region where truth is a mystery hidden in the subtlety of human interaction; stay alert.
The Lights Are On, written by Owen Panettieri and directed by Sarah Norris, is a psychodrama that plays with two ideas: are we really who we think we are, and what are the reasons we do what we do? It explores the light and dark of personal psychology, our perceptions of those around us, the events that shaped those people, and ultimately, ourselves. Panettieri’s script and Norris’ actualization result in a solid theater piece. It is a well-conceived and solidly acted play whose every minute is worth experiencing.
The person entering the house is Trish (Jenny Bacon), a neighbor and one-time friend of Liz (Danielle Ferland), the woman who was busy packing and unpacking items in the kitchen. Trish wants Liz to go with her to the end of the drive to look at her house up the hill from Liz. She is frightened and on the edge of panic. She tells Liz that while returning home from visiting her sister, she saw that the lights are on in her house and someone is standing at the upstairs bedroom window. She said she didn’t leave the lights on and wanted Liz to go with her to the end of the driveway to look at her house.
This opening sequence is essential in establishing the elements of the story since it is tied to the mental state of the two women. There is a hint that perhaps Trish is not entirely dealing with reality, but the same can be said of Liz as her survivalist behavior becomes more apparent. It is revealed that Trish has not visited Liz since the death of Liz’s husband Joe seven years earlier. The disconnect from Trish is apparent in the following dialogue:
TRISH: That was a difficult day. But a nice remembrance.
LIZ: I mostly remember how quiet it was.
TRISH: This furniture’s different now, yes?
After this exchange, it is revealed that Liz’s house was so damaged in a hurricane five years earlier that she had to replace all the furniture. In this dialogue, Trish’s behavior during that storm was another hurtful event in their relationship. Trish failed to help Liz and her son during the storm.
In the conversation that follows, more of the dysfunctional characteristics of the two women are revealed, subtle, seemingly insignificant things that will add up to a portrait of the fragile psychology that now defines their lives and what truth is in those definitions.
When the conversation turns to Trish’s reluctance to call the police about a possible intruder, she reveals a time before her divorce when the house was broken into and vandalized. As this conversation winds down, Nathan (Marquis Rodriguez) enters, returning from work, with his arms full of grocery bags and packages of toilet paper and paper towels to be added to the many packages already stacked in the kitchen.
Trish is excited to see him since her son Jeremy was Nathan’s best friend until he moved away with his father after Trish’s divorce. From this point on, the three characters interact, sharing bits of memory about how their families interacted with each other over the years. These scenes reveal more of the psychodynamics of the characters guiding us through the chaos and uncertainty of their lives, with each revelation adding a new layer to the mystery of what is true or not. Ultimately, the mystery lingers, like a mist on an open field in the early morning sun, and the journey of understanding for the observers begins.
Ferland, Bacon, and Rodriguez provide solid, memorable characterizations. Ferland’s portrayal of Liz as a normally functioning woman is seamless, showing us someone with a borderline obsessive/compulsive personality. Rodriguez gives us a young, gay person of color who is torn between leaving and living an independent life and staying to support a mother he knows is not dealing with the real world. He is the only one who understands what is true, but even with that understanding, he cannot escape the chaos inherent in his mother’s beliefs.
Bacon’s performance as Trish is a tour de force of characterization. Her transitions from borderline manic actions to withdrawn, somber moments are skillfully executed. At times, she seems to be overacting the manic moments, but when one realizes the character’s mental state, the portrayal’s accuracy is evident. She plays the mood shifts of a paranoid, manic-depressive personality perfectly, including the hallucinogenic episodes when she is alone in the kitchen hearing sounds as the lights are flickering, with all ending the moment Liz and Nathan return.
The scenic design by Brian Dudkiewicz is an excellent depiction of a modest suburban kitchen, including some elements that add to the strangeness of the actions, such as the kitchen window and one of the cabinet doors. The costume design by Kara Branch adds another element to the unfolding mysteries of the story, with subtle changes in Liz and Nathan’s costumes in contrast to Trish’s staying the same. The lighting design is critical to delivering essential story elements, and Kelley Shih provides a solid structure. The sound design is of equal importance to the lighting design. Janet Bentley and Andy Evan Cohen rise to the occasion, adding sound that supports the action in unexpected ways, including a song at the end that underscores the whole experience.
The Lights Are On (through November 11, 2023)
New Light Theater Project and Embeleco Unlimited
Theatre One at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://www.newlighttheaterproject.com/the-lights-are-on
Running time: 95 minutes without intermission