Red Light Winter
I SELDOM GO to the theatre knowing nothing about the play I’m about to see… and often consider this reason enough to attend. Red Light Winter at Footlight’s Late Night Series was such an occasion—I went knowing only the reputation of playwright Adam Rapp and two-thirds of the cast. It was a powerful theatrical experience, and one not easily put out of mind.
A pair of thirty-year-old, ex-college roommates go to Amsterdam to refresh. Davis (Randy Risher) is an up-and-coming publisher and Matt (Shawn S. Stoner) is a struggling playwright who is recovering from a draining illness. The plan is that Davis will help Matt past his anxieties by providing his friend with a prostitute from the Red Light District. Enter the lovely and fragile Christina (Christina Leidel). What transpires follows the three back to New York a year later, and changes their lives.
The performances in this production were strikingly good. Stoner’s Matt was as interesting a portrayal of a troubled nerd that you will ever see. Matt’s socially unskilled quirkiness, a one-note joke in a lesser actor’s hands, made the two-hour play go quickly. He gives the playwright’s words an idiosyncratic rhythm that often sounds poetic. Fascinating to watch… he takes us from shattered to hopeful to helpless… and his journey is our journey. Christina is not what she appears from start to finish—and Leidel’s performance is layer upon layer of veils, some placed intentionally, and some so deep that forty years of therapy wouldn’t scratch the surface.
There is a moment in the play—one of the highlights—where Christina sings a haunting, soulful song about reaching for hopeless love. Leidel’s command of the stage and of her vocal instrument are impressive—made more so by the fact that, as Director J.C. Conway tells us in his program notes, the actress “came up with the melody on her own.” By the end of the play, the audience, which was uncharacteristically silent and rapt throughout, collectively wished they could put their arms around this broken girl. Risher has arguably the most difficult role in the show. Davis is a prick, and why these two young men are friends remains a mystery. But Risher portrays Davis with all his competitive and poisonous features. This character is toxic, and much more two-dimensionally written than the others—selfish, thoughtless—and unfortunately we all know people like him. Risher succeeds in creating the waves in the play that carry us way up and way down for the two hours.
Talented Director Conway worked his performers hard, to be sure. He also chose to have them appear nude in the highly-charged sexual scenes. The result is a troubling and heart-breaking two-act play about a dangerous love triangle, on a sparse set with low-tech sound and three exceptional performances.
Red Light Winter was originally produced by Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and was the winner of a 2006 Obie Award and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It continues at Footlight (20 Queen Street, Charleston) on September 6-8 at 9:00 PM & September 9 at 4:00 PM.