We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Sarah Ruhl’s plays are odd, alchemical things, admixtures of the fantastical and the everyday, and it takes a light touch to make them lift off. When her magic works, as with The Clean House at Woolly Mammoth a few years back, her moody metaphysics can elevate her characters’ pains into the realm of poetry, and the stage-pictures she inspires directors and designers to conjure can move audiences (and critics) to tears: Eurydice, Ruhl’s celebrated update of the Orpheus myth, made the generally waspish Charles Isherwood weep like a lost child in the pages of the New York Times—not just once, but in an encore when the play earned its Broadway transfer—and it seems to have struck the Washington Post’s Celia Wren with much the same force in its Washington-area premiere at the Round House Theatre. So why am I feeling rather more ambivalent about Derek Goldman’s staging? The tale itself, a meditation on loss and coping, is reliably wrenching: Bookish Eurydice, on the night of her wedding to the musically inclined Orpheus, stops to talk to a stranger, who claims to have a letter from her late father. Following the man to his high-rise home, she falls to her death, emerging in the underworld, where her dad is among the first to greet her—though having passed through a river that washes away earthly memories, Eurydice takes him for a porter and asks him to help lug her bags. As Orpheus mourns above, Eurydice’s father gently, painstakingly finds the keys that will unlock her past, so that the two can know each other again—and so that Eurydice can reach out to her briefly forgotten husband for rescue and leave her father alone once more. Round House’s staging is grandly scaled and handsome enough, though there’s perhaps not the surprise and wonder there might be in the way it realizes the dreamy water imagery so crucial to the story—that anesthetic river, an elevator that opens to reveal a rainstorm, and so on. If Adriano Gatto’s blandly handsome Orpheus remains something of a cipher, the character is less crucial in Ruhl’s retelling than in the original myth. Harry A.Winter’s reserved, unfussy turn as Eurydice’s father seems exactly right: warm, sad, and sweet without ever threatening to tip the play’s exquisitely balanced melancholy toward the bathetic. And Jenna Sokolowski, aside from a mild tendency to lean into Eurydice’s discoveries and decisions with the same wide-eyed look of surprise, serves the play nicely enough. So I’ll chalk my reaction up to tonal choices that may strike others differently: the abrasively antic disposition of Mitchell Hébert’s juvenile underworld-boss; the noisy bray of that three-part chorus coaxing and cajoling the inhabitants of Hades, calling for forgetfulness and quiet in a manner that seems expressly designed to banish them. Not big handicaps and certainly valid stabs at what Ruhl calls for in her script—but enough to tip the balance of Eurydice, at least for me, from the magical toward the merely intriguing.