Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The man and woman who stare past each other at the outset of Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water are not Adam and Eve, but they might as well be. Though their bodies are middle-aged, they have no past. And if the tree of knowledge is somewhere in the forest surrounding the island on which they sit, they have yet to taste its fruit.
They have awakened together, naked and entirely without memories. They don’t know who they are. Or where. Or why they’re together. Or even if they know each other. His hand was on her breast when she woke. It felt comfortable, but what conclusions can they draw from that? Are they married? Lovers? The robes they found in a closet seem to fit them, but there are no photos anywhere, and the straight lines and muted colors of the modern furniture on which they now sit tell them nothing.
“It’s a beautiful room,” hazards the woman. “I wonder whose it is.”
“It could be ours,” offers the man.
This sounds like an arid situation out of Ionesco—the absurdist’s name is, in fact, still on Round House’s marquee, linked to his dry, linguistic farce, The Chairs, which was the theater’s previous tenant—but Blessing is nothing if not emotionally engaged, and he has not placed his characters in an existential void to ask idle questions idly. When this man and woman wonder how they’ve come to such a pretty pass—and it is pristinely pretty as envisioned in blues and beiges by designer James Kronzer—they’re not talking philosophy. They’re frantically seeking literal answers. By car? By helicopter? By boat?
The abrupt arrival of a younger woman seems to offer at least the possibility of clues, but her cryptic responses instead provoke more questions. To hear her talk, she might be their daughter, their lawyer, their caretaker—or even a CIA agent holding them prisoner. The playwright’s hand gets a little heavy on the keyboard as he suggests she’s all of those things, while weaving in chatter of murder and suicide, but somehow his characters never stray into Pinter territory. Their concerns are less about anxiety than about identity, less about identity than about trying to make connections. They seem sensible and smart. They approach the task of figuring out who they are logically. Alas, they simply haven’t the necessary tools. Without memory to catalog the events of life, there is only the present. Bonds can’t hold, relationships must unravel, attachments will ever be ephemeral.
“This is the worst feeling in the world,” says the woman, who has been told her name is Avis but who seems no more able to identify with that moniker than she could with Jane or Brigid. The man, whose name is Moss, can give her a hug when she bursts into tears, but he can’t get close.
This rootlessness can’t be easy for an actor to play. Without backstory, a blank-behind-the-eyes quality would seem almost a given. But between Jerry Whiddon’s gravelly blustering and Nancy Robinette’s ever-hopeful optimism, Moss and Avis become intriguingly detailed, their separate befuddlements distinctive and individual. Kate Eastwood Norris, as the visitor who is forever offering this couple new explanations for who they might be, coaxes, cajoles, and bullies them (“No one could care for you for as long as I have and not torture you a little”), putting skin and bones on a character who might easily seem an authorial device.
Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s vigorous staging builds on the script’s mysteries with a few of her own invention—offstage staircases leading where exactly?—while creating a curiously vivid, yet entirely neutral environment with the help of Daniel McLean Wagner’s lighting, and a pulsing, trickling sound design by Martin Desjardins. Accidents of casting, meanwhile, encourage viewers to search their own memories. Only a week before she plunged into the memory-loss limbo of A Body of Water, after all, patrons could catch Robinette thrashing in a horrific parental limbo in Studio Theater’s Frozen; and it hasn’t been all that long since Round House subscribers saw her and Whiddon playing another middle-aged couple who made things up as they went along in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Blessing is represented on local stages not just by a disconnected Moss and Avis but by the forcibly separated protagonists in his hostage drama Two Rooms at Theater Alliance. Water’s context all but obliges you to connect dots where you can, and as much by happenstance as by design with this production, there are plenty to connect.
Which is to say that Taichman and company are catching a wave in A Body of Water. In an age when politicians rely on the forgetfulness of the body politic, and when that body politic lives long enough that few families are spared the ravages of senility, it’s hardly surprising that memory is much on the minds of artists. The film Memento built a whodunit around a character afflicted with short-term memory loss; the documentary Unknown White Male chronicled the struggles of a real-world amnesiac. And now Blessing comes along, wondering in his own erudite, fascinating way what’s left of us when we forget. Who is an amnesiac, if not the sum of all the experiences he can no longer remember? And how much of identity, of personality, of the you-ness that makes you you is determined simply by remembrance of things past?
The chief wonder in Wonders Never Cease, a one-man magic and mentalist act masquerading as a comedy at Charter Theatre, is that a company dedicated to developing new plays would regard a one-man magic and mentalist act as being even remotely within its purview. Standards may have been slipping lately, but the venue is the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, for heaven’s sake. Personally, I blame Arena Stage for lowering the bar by centering whole evenings on hats and haircuts.
Charter’s little show is centered on the entirely personable, and certifiably energetic, Barry Wood—a co-founder of the erstwhile improv comedy troupe Dropping the Cow—specifically on his childhood fascination with comic-book come-ons. You knew someone had to be buying those mind-reading manuals, X-ray glasses, and just-add-water Sea Monkeys, right? Well, Wood’s the guy, and his stage patter has to do with his belated realization that the magic and superpowers those ads offered weren’t actually accessible for $1.98. This being a conclusion the rest of us mostly arrived at without spending $1.98, it’s questionable whether it’s now worth the price of a theater ticket to delve into that epiphany with him.
It might be less questionable if there were more entertainment value to the exploration, but Wood’s jokes about growing up in Wheaton and his manipulation of raccoon puppets and assorted other props are perhaps a fifth as funny as he and his co-authors (and co-Cow alumni) Jim Helein and Mario Baldessari think they are and not even a third as funny as they need to be. With alcohol serving as a lubricant in a comedy club, some of Wonders Never Cease’s modest illusions might conceivably slide by, but in a theatrical context, the patter serves mostly to delay the tricks, and the tricks aren’t good enough to justify the wait. Wonders, in short, never really start.CP