After a first third as a small, traditional play about small, unkempt lives, Labyrinth Theater’s Radiance spills into a trapdoor of a flashback and becomes a big-idea play about the most momentous of lives: that of the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima.
That could work, but in this case the trouble is threefold: (1) That momentous flashback, one with nothing less than the fate of the world on the brink, burns so much hotter and brighter than the smaller-stakes day-in-the-life-of-a-bar play built around it that it’s something like a blazing hot coal sealed up in a paper envelope. (2) In execution, that flashback—a moment of the highest moral consequences certainly deserving a play of its own—becomes one of those utterly artificial theatrical constructions where every single important emotional event in one character’s life is crammed into one concentrated half-hour, something like the last act of The Buddy Holly Story. (3) Cusi Cram’s script is at its most adroit with the smaller stuff, before its scope widens, especially at showing how the everyday humiliations stared down by pub accountant May (the strong Ana Reeder) have at last piled up so high that she’s moved to take significant action within her own life—not the kind of thing that might level a city or end a war, but momentous in its own way. Post-flashback, when we’ve learned that the twitchy, gravel-throated afternoon drinker (Kohl Sudduth) who’s been flirting with her is that Enola Gay co-pilot, May’s problems are reduced back to what they’d been when she first took the stage: the ol’ hill of beans.
Still, the show is sturdily acted and well designed, and the final third builds some power despite the fact that the likable May, its most electric character, is sidelined. May and Rob, the co-pilot, are holed up in a Hollywood Boulevard bar near the El Capitan Theatre, where NBC recorded the This Is Your Life. Rob—based on the real-life Robert Lewis—has been booked to appear on the show for a moment that producer Waxman (Aaron Roman Weiner, superb) assures him will be one of serious international significance: for an Enola Gay crew member to shake hands with a Japanese reverend who is raising money to provide plastic surgery to the so-called “Hiroshima Maidens,” two dozen young women who suffered facial disfigurement from the blast. Before that flashback, and the revelation of who exactly he is, Rob watches May bust up her on-again, off-again thing with Artie (Kelly AuCoin), the bar’s manager. At this point, the play is still May’s, and as Reeder spitfires amusingly, the fellows are reduced to standing around and waiting for the inevitable moment when the script again gives them agency.
Eventually, Rob gets to drinking, Waxman gets to beseeching him to appear on the show, and that flashback hits. By the end, as Rob sifts through his ambivalence about having participated in the deaths of some 70,000 people—the real Lewis is the only Enola Gay crewmember who ever expressed public remorse for the bombing—it’s May who is left to stand around, now just another witness to history— and too small to matter much to Radiance.