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

This is a civilized place,” protests one of the two women: “All of the wolves have been killed.” Neither assertion is remotely true, of course, not in the Utah desert in 1867. But there are wolves and then there are metaphors—and what fuels Two-Headed, what supplies so much of its tension and sparks so much of its engrossing drama, is the consuming need of Julie Jensen’s fractious characters to believe in civilization while living among wolves of all stripes.

And drama there unmistakably is in Gregg Henry’s eloquent, unfussy production for the Washington Shakespeare Company: Wolves (the real kind) are just the most immediate threat for Hettie and Lavinia, a pair of childhood friends who wrangle, over the course of the story’s 40-year span, with the knotty histories of their entangled families and their infant church, with “the divinely inspired institution of plural marriage” and the intimate secrets they daren’t speak of outside their tight little circle—and with the collective insanity that was the Mormon community’s response to the Mountain Meadows massacre, an 1857 horror in which zealous locals slaughtered 127 unarmed outsiders making their way west. But there’s more to Two-Headed than colorful storytelling: What defines “outsider,” and who does the defining—it had been barely a decade since the Mormons, whose militia perpetrated Mountain Meadows, had been driven like dogs from Missouri—are but two of the questions Jensen offers up between the taut lines, and between the script’s philosophical sophistication and the richness of the performances, the 90-minute Two-Headed comes off feeling like one of most substantial and satisfying shows of the Washington season.

Washington’s shoestring companies wrestle constantly with the demands of their ambitions, and WSC’s appetite for challenging shows, sprawling shows, difficult shows means its productions in particular are frequently rough around the edges—but a well-built two-hander like Two-Headed makes for a welcome reminder of how solid the company’s core has always been. Lee Mikeska Gardner and Melissa Flaim, both longtime components of that core in various capacities, prove conclusively that the cavernous Clark Street Playhouse—a space that’s accommodated the conquering Spanish hordes of Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun and the noisy West African cacophony of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman within the last year—can be thoroughly dominated by two commanding actors with a sensitive director and an expressive design team at their backs.

Of course, Flaim’s Lavinia has a certain built-in…shall we call it an outsize quality? Let’s just say that if she’d been born to urbanites back East instead of to Mormon settlers freshly relocated to southern Utah, Lavinia might have given Sarah Bernhardt a little competition on the barnstorming circuit. When we meet her and her sidekick Hettie (and make no mistake, biddable Hettie is a born sidekick), the two of them are 10 years old; Hettie burbles and dithers like any pre-adolescent, gabbling on about what scares her and what thrills her, but Lavinia’s a fey thing, a moody, bossy woman-child given to hints and proclamations, rapturous paeans and dark oaths. Before the first of Two-Headed’s five quick scenes is concluded, it becomes clear that Lavinia has been marked already, scarred by a terrible knowledge and by an impossible passion, and before the second scene is far advanced we will see exactly how deep those scars go. Lavinia’s a woman who’s put too many twos together, who’s too smart not to see contradictions and too sensitive not to care, and Flaim illuminates her torments with a knotted, nervous intensity.

Gardner makes Hettie the sturdy yin to Lavinia’s volatile yang—the play concerns itself with diptychs, from the two-headed calf the two discuss so feverishly in that first scene to the various personal pairings-off that will arise over the course of two generations, and Lavinia and Hettie are the central duality, a twosome so interdependent they might well not be able to survive separately. If Lavinia’s nerves lie too close to the skin, Hettie’s level-headedness provides the steadying, soothing influence; if the adult Hettie’s stolid, head-down trudge through life threatens to make her just another domestic chattel in the household of a domineering Mormon man, she’s got fractious, impatient Lavinia to measure herself and her choices against.

Not that the two are always close—or rather, they’re so close that the occasional dose of spite seems inevitable. Lavinia’s choice of husband has as much to do with asserting her dominance over Hettie as it does with her need to bind herself to the memory of the man’s dead wife. (Remember that impossible passion? It’s why WSC has programmed Two-Headed in repertory with The Children’s Hour, and it’s another interestingly textured angle on otherness and othering, given the play’s topic and its time.) Hettie’s eventual marriage, meanwhile, proves as personal a repudiation of Lavinia’s rebellious, freethinking ways as can be imagined—and later, when things come full circle with the polygamous marriage of Hettie’s daughter to Lavinia’s aging husband, the snarl of emotions and motivations thickens until all they can do is lash out, and lean on each other, and lurch unsteadily onward.

Jensen writes raw, muscular dialogue that does the work of storytelling without once seeming baldly expositional; these are personal words that set the scene in terms of the people it contains. And Henry frames all these lurid intimacies with a production whose chief virtue is its spareness. Jason Cowperthwaite’s gorgeous lighting and Randy Lancelot’s lyrical sound design suggest the rhythms of the prairie and of generations, while Michael (Misha) Kachman provides just a rough wooden structure at one end of the playing area to give Lavinia a place to hide her secrets in the early going, and a weather-blasted tree (which Godot are they waiting for, anyway?) that makes a perch from which to discover things. There’s no hiding in it—not with it stripped leafless, lifeless as it is—but it’s a place to escape for a minute from agony and from the ordinary, a vantage from which to watch for signs of civilization. And for wolves.CP