NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Christmas whooshes in from the wings, making a festive sneak attack. One instant, a recovering addict is deep in a soliloquy about the seductions of heroin; the next, she is standing in her doting sister’s living room, surrounded by sparkle and warmth.
“The Brightest Thing in the World,” Leah Nanako Winkler’s potent new play at Yale Repertory Theater, is itself a bit of an ambush, though a more gradual one. Beginning as a rom-com with all the trimmings, it intensifies into a pair of love stories — each golden in its way, each fraught with quiet fear. Directed by Margot Bordelon, this is ultimately a brokenhearted tale.
But for a nice long while, it luxuriates in the fluttery pleasure of mutual crushes morphing into romance. At Revival, a cozy bakery cafe in Lexington, Ky., the charming Lane (a stellar Katherine Romans) has been subtly wooing Steph (Michele Selene Ang), one of her regular customers, with coffee and pastries on the house. Lane even bakes her the kind of cake that famously figures in the novel Steph totes around.
“See my biceps?” Lane says, boasting of all the egg-beating she’s done. “They’re stronger now.”
“Whoa,” Steph says, swooning adorably.
Winkler knows her rom-com tropes, so Steph is not only a florist but also a journalist, albeit a fairly unobservant one. She has no idea that everyone who works at Revival is in recovery from addiction. By the time Lane becomes aware of Steph’s obliviousness and fills her in, they are already enmeshed; when they finally got together, fireworks boomed in the night sky. (The set is by Cat Raynor, lighting is by Graham Zellers, sound is by Emily Duncan Wilson.)
Della (Megan Hill), Lane’s wacky older sister, actively nurtures the couple’s happiness. On the first of a few Christmases with Steph, when Lane worries that “it’s hard to be all in with someone like me,” Della reassures her.
“You’re fantastic,” she says. “And a catch.”
This is the play’s other love story: the devotion between Lane, who is four years sober, and Della, a one-woman cheerleading squad who holds on tight to the memories of all the beautiful things that her sister has done and been. It’s Della who recalls Lane, radiant in the audience at a concert one night, as “the brightest thing in the world.”
Winkler’s script is dappled with fancy and poetry, but some dialogue sounds more schematic than dramatic, as when Lane and Steph talk politics. The play also sabotages two scenes by courting laughs in life-or-death moments — first during a pivotal emergency, and later in a traumatic recollection of loss. Humans can be ridiculous even in the most somber circumstances, but the attempts at comedy undermine the emotion.
Those are puzzling miscalculations for a work that is otherwise insistent on acknowledging the messy, scary coexistence of joy and pain, strength and fragility, self-preservation and self-destruction — not only in Lane but in Steph and Della, who love her tenaciously, and whom she loves back hard. It’s just that, as Lane tells Steph, she also loves heroin.
Which is why a constant worry long ago insinuated itself into Della’s everyday thoughts: “What do I have to do today … is Lane dead. I need gas … is Lane dead. Do I want coffee … is Lane dead.”
It is bold to stage “The Brightest Thing in the World” in the season when jolly-holiday pressures can heighten tensions for addicts and those who love them. That timing could easily make it too much for people to watch.
But I’ve been dogged for years by the same dread as Della, with a different name attached. And I’ll tell you, there can be real solace in a play that speaks your own fears back to you.
The Brightest Thing in the World
Through Dec. 17 at the Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, Conn.; yalerep.org. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.