Foldin’ Years: Schellhardt’s youth’s a bone.
Foldin’ Years: Schellhardt’s youth’s a bone.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Look, over there at Woolly Mammoth: A solo show crammed full of idiosyncratic characters, centered on a delicate, damaged young narrator endowed with stubborn, secret strength—a strength that’ll see her through to a second-act triumph over an adult tormenter. Original, no?

Not especially. But if the shape of The K of D feels a tad familiar, writer Laura Schellhardt has a sharp eye for looking at a cruel world and an arresting way of putting her observations into words. Her jokes are scorpions, with sharp little stings in their tails; some of those characters might be types, but they’re indelibly sketched. Her evocative small-town vignettes will ring true to anybody who’s lived in a place like the Ohio backwater she describes (and intrigue anyone who hasn’t). And her heroine—a young girl named Charlotte, provided by love and tragedy with a frightful gift—is a singularly intriguing creation, if not a wholly singular one.

Played, like the other 14 characters in Schellhardt’s skein of unlikely yarns, by the protean Kimberly Gilbert, Charlotte’s a survivor, but only just. A twin, she’s lost her brother to a reckless driver; a daughter, she’s saddled with grotesques for parents. (Dad’s a short-tempered moron, Mom an obsessively competitive schoolteacher who shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of kids.) A loner at heart now, Charlotte still runs with the pack she and her brother once found a home in, though she seems always to be on its edges, observing.

From its somber start, The K of D travels to dark places indeed; it’s solo theater gone Southern Gothic, a Flannery O’Connor tale brought to life by one of its own characters. There’s a reincarnation, and a breathtakingly cruel death; there’s a wilding, and an act of mercy, and ultimately an act of self-defense that has the satisfying tang of revenge. And as with all such tales, there are glimmers of beauty amid the dark—flashes of charity, glimpses of grace.

Gilbert takes full advantage of the showcase Schellhardt provides her with that raft of quirky characters, shifting fluidly from one to the next, etching out distinct personalities for each. And John Vreeke’s eloquent, unfussy staging makes a moody bedsheets-and-shadows frame for a play that, with its dark-of-night climaxes and its dabblings in the supernatural, ends up feeling like a firelit campfire tale. Simple pleasures, those—and ultimately pretty satisfying, too.