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The new D.C. playwrights collective The Welders has pledged to hand over its keys to a new class of theatermakers five years and three productions from now, which I hope will be interval enough for its current lineup—Bob Cartlett, Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Jojo Ruf, and Gwydion Suilebhan—to build something worth preserving.
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Their inaugural effort, Currin’s fantasy-tinged drama The Carolina Layaway Grail, is a promising start. It’s a warm, self-aware, older-kid-friendly spin on the Hero’s Journey involving a young Southern woman’s quest to recover her Parkinson’s-stricken grandfather’s globe—a fist-sized glass sphere that he believes contains the voices and memories of his ancestors—from the unspecified Big City where he misplaced it. Along the way she encounters various Gilliamesque magical figures: Nick DePinto, who is sublimely oily, as a velvet-coated, lace-cuffed, elevator-booted doorman/procurer; Jacob Yeh as a Dickensian office clerk in a waistcoat and fingerless gloves who can’t stop himself from turning official documents in paper cranes; Jaysen Wright as a devoted sidekick called, well, Sidekick. He knows his Joseph Campbell back-to-front.
Nora Achrati is tremendously appealing as Diana, the sole surviving offspring of her tall-tale-telling grandpa, Duck (a suitably avuncular Michael John Casey). Commencing the tale in a vague present, she adopts a thick southern drawl to recount her journey to maturity. Karen Lange has a fun part as the boisterous nurse with whom Duck exchanges profane endearments, and as the Mayor—an oblivious, grotesquely made-up demagogue who recalls Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games.
Scenic and lighting designers John Bowhers and Jason Arnold give the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s black-box space a uniform feeling of campfire-story intimacy while still managing to suggest locales as disparate as a rural front porch and a velvet-rope nightclub. (Appropriately, the song gurgling through the walls during a scene in which Diana tries to negotiate her way onto the exclusive, mysterious “list” for entry is Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!”) Elsewhere, director Sonya Robbins uses a glockenspiel-or-bells arrangement of Tom Petty’s “Freefallin’,” which communicates something of the sunstruck dreaminess she achieves in her show’s most confident moments. She also creates a haunting stage picture for the show’s climax, one that would be even more powerful if Currin allowed Diana to remain silent and drink in the sight with the rest of us. The artists involved with The Welders will have plenty to say in the next few years. They don’t need to say it all at once.