Her name is Iris (Maggie Mason), and she is indeed capable of uncommon vision: she can peer into the world of the dead. But when her colleague suffers a horrific tragedy, Iris learns that the most mysterious and difficult-to-part curtain might be not of death, but of grief — or, as Iris puts it, “the veil between the living and the living.” It’s walking, breathing spirits, people reduced to ghosts of themselves, that move at the heart of beloved author Monica Wood’s new play, The Half-Light, directed by Sally Wood at Portland Stage.
Iris treats her gift for ghosts lightly, even as it becomes office talk at the branch university where she works with her colleagues, fellow secretary Helen (Moira Driscoll) and Irish literature professor Andrew (Brent Askari). And Iris cultivates her practice by beguilingly common means: by listing dozens and dozens of everyday items in boxes or drawers. This exercise somehow trains her brain to be more amenable to ghost-sensing.
“It makes the inside of your head seem like a crystal,” she marvels to Andrew. “Ok,” says Andrew, carefully and comically neutral.
Details like these bring at once a strangeness, an everyday tangibility, and an off-beat humor to Iris’s strange gift. And that aesthetic recipe guides The Half-Light, as it fluctuates between broad comedy — Helen setting up Iris with a “chicken judge” or stripping to her bra in an office hot flash — and the lyrical — snowfall projected layers deep on scrims; lights deepening on Andrew gazing at cherry blossoms. And classic haunted-house imagery enters the fray through the plight of Helen’s estranged daughter Teresa (Wilma Rivera), an unstable alcoholic whose apartment is frequently seized by ominous winds and flashing lights.
Sally Wood’s super cast moves lightly and with compassion through The Half-Light’s brisk progression of scenes, and their characters play against each other distinctly. Mason’s poised, precise Iris, her hair pulled back, often wears a subtle smile of amusement, and she plays beautifully against Driscoll’s all-out loud, messy, irrepressible Helen, she of equally loud floral shirts and fruit-burdened tropical cocktails. Askari’s comedy here is measured and gentle, his Andrew charmingly awkward and then, after his tragedy, affectingly absent. Andrew and Iris’s slow courtship unfolds with an artless sweetness. Meanwhile, Rivera’s powerfully understated Teresa is undergoing her own parallel rebirth. With her pale, wry face, long dark hair, and deep voice, plays the troubled Teresa with a loose candor that lets us intuit how deep her inner darkness is.
The Half-Light explores the mystery of grief with gentle whimsy, and with Monica Wood’s characteristic big-heartedness and generosity of spirit. She shows us but does not belabor the darkness, and the difficulty of emerging from it; she leavens the tragedy with broad comedic and rom-com tropes — bra-flashing, Scrabble dates. The script might bear some more honing of the parallel action between Iris’s amateur ghost-hunting and her developing relationship with Andrew, but its plotting moves swiftly and synthesizes with simple and satisfying beauty. Pay profound attention, is one of the tenets that the characters of The Half-Light come to hold close. When it comes to love and the living, paying attention is perhaps the best clairvoyance — which literally, after all, means clear seeing — that we can practice.
The Half-Light | by Monica Wood; directed by Sally Wood | Portland Stage Company Mainstage, 25 Forest, through March 24 | www.portlandstage.org