The Light Years

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 14, 2017

Brian Lee Huynh and Erik Lochtefeld
Brian Lee Huynh and Erik Lochtefeld  

The Debate Society is a Brooklyn-based company comprised of three people (writer/performer Hannah Bos, writer/performer Paul Thureen, and director/developer Oliver Butler) who collaborate to create unique plays like "The Light Years," which is now being performed at Playwrights Horizons. Born out of both their personal connections to the subject matter and shared interests in its themes, the play takes place during the 1893 and 1933 Chicago World's Fairs, bringing a bit of the magic of those events to the stage -- and so much more.

Straddling these two different time periods, "The Light Years" brings us into the lives of two families who are experiencing the World's Fair by working in it. The first is gifted electrician Hillary and his wife Adeline, who sells tea. Hillary is working for actor and innovator Steele MacKaye, helping him to realize his glorious Spectatorium, a massive structure designed to house an elaborate drama filled with music and electric light, a relatively new technology at that time.

Forty years later, during the Great Depression, songwriter Lou, his wife Ruth, and their son Charlie live in the apartment once occupied by Hillary and Adeline. Lou is writing jingles for exhibitors at the 1933 fair (and being paid virtually nothing), while Ruth is selling pancakes at one of the booths. They are a loving and cheerful family but strained by lack of money.

The Debate Society weaves fact and fiction in telling these stories. The historical center of the show is the Spectatorium, an unfulfilled dream of real-life theater impresario MacKaye. A financial panic in 1893 caused him to lose needed funds for the project, and it was scrapped before the fair opened. But "The Light Years" focuses on a moment before that, when hope was still high among his crew, particularly Hillary, who was proud to be working on something he believed would be remembered far into the future.

Another key historical aspect is the play's thematic use of a technological gimmick from 1933, in which light from the star Arcturus was used to switch on the lights of the fair. The creative and scientific minds behind the '33 Fair saw Arcturus -- then believed to be 40 light years away from earth -- as a metaphorical bridge back to the famed 1893 Fair.

The play is full of unique pleasures that make it something very special. The highly theatrical presentation jumps back and forth in time, eventually revealing meaningful connections between the periods and characters. Laura Jellinek's brilliant scenic design evokes both the grand aspirations and the unfinished reality of MacKaye's electric light-filled dream. The writing itself has a special charm, with a funny and slightly offbeat sensibility that is wonderful to see among characters in eras that we tend to view in stodgy, black and white photographs.

Those warm, passionate, and hopeful characters are given life by a small but spectacular cast. Rocco Sisto is marvelous as the eccentric, irrepressible Steele MacKaye, a man with big ideas and a big heart. As electrician Hillary, Erik Lochtefeld personifies the technician as an artist, working tirelessly behind the scenes to create something magical. As Adeline, Aya Cash glows as brightly as any of the bulbs that Hillary is forever fiddling with, and their loving marriage is the emotional center of the show.

Brian Lee Huynh also gives a touching, understated performance as Hong Sling, Hillary's Chinese colleague who works side-by-side with him as the men brave the dangers of working with electricity. The cast is rounded out by Ken Barnett as the talented but demoralized jingle writer Lou, and Graydon Peter Yosowitz as young Charlie, the only character who actually has an opportunity to be intrigued and amazed by the wonders of the World's Fair since he's not busy selling pancakes or rigging lights.

Innovation, art, family, history, and destiny all collide in this beautiful production. The Spectatorium may have been a dramatic failure, but over 100 years later it has given birth to something incandescent and unforgettable in "The Light Years."

"The Light Years" runs through April 2 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-564-1235 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.