Most theatrical road movies take a trip through the landscape; this one goes on a journey through time. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, “Anything That Gives Off Light,” part of the Edinburgh International Festival, is a Scottish-U.S. co-production that digs deep into the collective past of the two nations to examine the gap between truth and mythology. If it sometimes feels more like a political treatise than a fully fledged drama, it is nonetheless compellingly acted by the American actress Jessica Almasy with Scotland’s Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson, and constructed with a heady disregard for the Aristotelian unities.
An acronym for Theater of the Emerging American Moment, Brooklyn company The TEAM specializes in cross-cultural mash-ups, routinely fusing video, music, history, literature and politics. Edinburgh favorites since the award-winning Fringe shows “Give Up! Start Over” (2005) and “Particularly in the Heartland” (2006), the company first collaborated with the National Theater of Scotland on 2008’s “Architecting,” which made a characteristically unorthodox link between “Gone with the Wind” and post-Katrina New Orleans. Meanwhile, founder-director Chavkin (“Hadestown,” “Small Mouth Sounds”) has productions all over New York this year, and steps up to Broadway with her $14 million production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” opening at the Imperial Theater in November.
Comparatively, “Anything That Gives Off Light” is less eclectic in its source material, although it has a similar breadth of ambition in its grand political statement about our place in history. The set-up is straightforward: Red, a woman from West Virginia (Almasy), stumbles into a Scottish bar and meets real-estate manager Brian (Ferguson) and his drop-out friend Iain (Grierson), who offer to take her on a sight-seeing trip to the Highlands.
All three are conflicted. Far from home, Red is in Scotland on a second honeymoon but has arrived without her husband. “Leaving isn’t a simple matter,” she says. Carrying the ashes of his left-leaning grandmother, the London-based Brian is in his native Scotland for the weekend and wrestling with his identity: “I’m calibrating my Scottishness.” In a late-developing storyline (too late for emotional impact), Iain reveals that his frequent outbursts of anger are a response to a secret cancer diagnosis; his body is literally at war with itself.
This inner uncertainty finds a parallel in the journey they take. They tick off the destinations in the standard tourist itinerary, but keep finding contradictions in the historical narrative. It’s all very well romanticizing the Scottish Highlander (think Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”), but if your ancestors were from the Lowlands, they were probably complicit in destroying the Highland way of life during the clearances of the 18th century.
That in turn led to an exodus to the U.S. and, with it, some of the ideas that characterize the American mindset to this day. Slipping seamlessly from continent to continent and century to century in Chavkin’s fluid production (complete with country-folk interventions by the onstage band), the play suggests the spirit of free enterprise, exemplified by the “invisible hand” theory of Scottish economist Adam Smith, has led to desolation in the Scottish countryside and environmental ruin in the coalfields of West Virginia.
As an analysis, it has its roots in John McGrath’s landmark play “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil,” a socialist overview of the historical exploitation of Scotland’s poor. In its concerns about the nature of identity, it has much in common with Stephen Greenhorn’s “Passing Places” (another road movie for the stage) and several plays by David Greig. Thanks to the American collaboration, it moves those ideas onto a global platform, although it sometimes feels more like undigested polemic than fully embodied drama.
To compensate, we have Almasy, Ferguson and Grierson, three distinctive actors perfectly matched, giving tough, intelligent performances, masking an inner warmth behind their deadpan wit.