The Chicago premiere of Bright Half Life marks the final production of Andrew Volkoff's four-year tenure as About Face Theatre artistic director. Tanya Barfield's 2015 off-Broadway drama focusing on the intricacies of a long-term interracial lesbian relationship was on Volkoff's radar, so it was kismet when About Face artistic associate Keira Fromm came forward seeking to direct it before he even mentioned the play.
"I would have happily programmed Bright Half Life even if Keira hadn't proposed it," Volkoff said. "In fact, when I was looking at the play A Kid Like Jake a few seasons ago, she came to me to pitch it. We always seem to be on the same wavelength about what to do and when to do it."
Both Fromm and Volkoff were also well-aware that there are far fewer plays written about lesbians compared to gay men. But rather than just producing Bright Half Life to redress a gender imbalance, Fromm and Volkoff were particularly impressed by Barfield's writing and unconventional approach to showing the ups and downs of a loving lesbian relationship.
"I was really gobsmacked by the authenticity of it and the poetry of it," Fromm said. "It was a play that reflected the gay female experience in a really theatrical and loving way. I knew it would be a play that would feel at home for About Face."
Fromm describes Bright Half Life as a memory play that hopscotches back and forth in time through 40 years of a relationship between Erica ( About Face artistic associate Elizabeth Ledo ) and Vicky ( Patrese McClain ).
"Bright Half Life is also sort of a mystery play in the way that it unfolds," Fromm said. "The audience only really starts to get a sense where you are in place and time in the middle of a scene. You're discovering how all of the dots get connected through the course of the play."
Fromm adds that staging the differing memories between Erica and Vicky can also be tricky.
"A memory is sort of a simulation of the real event in your past and it's shaped by emotion," Fromm said. "The way that these memories play out may not be exactly how it unfolded. It really is colored by the way these women experienced it a year later, five years later, 10 years later and even three decades later. So everything has a different sort of texture on ruminating on the past."
Fromm is honored to be directing the final production under Volkoff's leadership of About Face Theatre. As for Volkoff himself, this time has been one of reflection while About Face seeks out a new artistic director.
"Having gone through cancer and having my father pass away a year ago, it just became clear that what I needed to do was spend some time with my family and help my mom through this time of life," Volkoff said. "You can't control what life is going to throw at you, so I'm glad to be able to be stepping away and hand it off to somebody in such great shape and people feeling so positively about the company."
When asked about which productions stood out the most during his time running About Face, Volkoff cited two. Volkoff felt that the 2015 Chicago premiere of Bixby Elliot's comic drama Abraham Lincoln was a F*gg*t ( concerning a gay teenager seeking out historical role models ) "really struck a chord at that moment in time."
"There's no other theater company that is going to put that production on," Volkoff said with a laugh. "I feel so proud to have been able to share that with both Chicago audiences and LGBTQ audiences and to have both get behind it in such a strong way."
Volkoff was also honored to have About Face revisit and rethink Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama I Am My Own Wife this season. Rather than staging the complicated story of German trans pioneer Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as a one-actor show, Wright gave Volkoff and About Face permission to hire local transgender actress Delia Kropp to star alongside other performers.
"It was something that no one had really done before," Volkoff said. "Since [I Am My Own Wife] started with About Face, having the opportunity to reinvent it here meant a lot to me."
Volkoff's immediate plans involve a move back to his native Milwaukee. Yet Volkoff said he'll likely be back in Chicago in the future as a freelance director.
"[It] makes me feel really good knowing that both the theater community and the LGBTQ community are really behind About Face now," Volkoff said. "It makes me proud of the work we did and what I'm able to actually pass on as my legacy."
About Face Theater's Chicago premiere of Tanya Barfield's 2015 off-Broadway drama Bright Half Life continues through Saturday, July 1, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays ( no show May 31 ) with 3 p.m. matinees Sundays ( also July 1 ).
Tickets are $40 and $20 for students and seniors; call 773-975-8150 or visit AboutFaceTheatre.com .