With electricity came not just practicality, but a whole new way to impress artistically. At least, that’s what Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) thinks. With Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) as his head electrician, Steele plans to build the Spectatorium, a 12,000-seat theater that will, through light bulbs, create a show of the stars. Amidst the constant yelps emitted by Hillary and his assistant Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh) as they face off with the new dangers of electricity, the Spectatorium-in-progress hums with the promise of light. With the help of his fearless wife Adeline (Aya Cash), Hillary works through each night, determined to finish in time for Steele’s presentation to his investors.
40 years later, in 1933, Lou (Ken Barnett) and his wife Ruth (also portrayed by Aya Cash) move into the same apartment Hillary and Adeline once inhabited. Their son Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) couldn’t be more thrilled to move to Chicago in time for a local fair, one that will feature a blimp. Fascinated by it, Charlie yearns to buy a stamp for a postcard the blimp will take around the world and back, but money is tight. His father tells him he can earn the money by practicing the piano every day. Music is, after all, the family trade, since Lou works writing commercial jingles. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay much, and more often than not, he gets paid in product samples rather than actual money. To make up for the lack of funds, Ruth looks for a job, also running the household and caring for Charlie while Lou falls into greater despair as his career continues to falter.
Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s play The Light Years shines as brightly as the electrical lights upon which it depends. The story itself charms with its brilliant simplicity, though it misses a few opportunities to infuse more complexity into its thematic core through the relationship between the two time periods. The connection between Adeline and Ruth, for example, could have been more deeply explored, especially as the play acknowledges the striking resemblance they bear to one another. This might have also helped develop Ruth’s presence in the play a little more, as the play focuses more on the stories of the husband and son she tirelessly supports, leaving her emotional journey underexplored.
Despite this, Aya Cash connects 1893 and 1933 with grace and ease, while distinguishing them through her skillful shifts between the speech and mannerism associated with each. Directed by Oliver Butler, the performances impress, especially in moments where the show connects its two families. A short sequence in which Brian Lee Huynh stunningly glosses the 40-year span between them does this particularly well. Ultimately, it is these connections that allow the show to come to life as a bittersweet exploration of ambitious artistic careers that don’t always pan out the way the dreamers had hoped.