Everyone will have his own moment of recognition at Columbinus. Mine came when time froze in the first act.

The Round House Theatre’s alternately electrifying and mundane evocation of the 1999 bloodbath at Littleton, Colo.’s, Columbine High School aims to render the incomprehensible comprehensible by first immersing audiences in the casually brutal world of adolescence. It does this in seemingly generic but precise vignettes calculated to trigger total recall of such bygone traumas as cafeteria-seating squabbles, hallway insults, and classroom embarrassments.

Also awkwardness on the playing field, which is defined by a longhaired youth who’s pressured by a jock into participating in a two-on-two basketball game. The longhair proves humiliatingly inept on the court, but he takes comfort in the supposition that if he just avoids the ball, no one will look at him. Then, when he’s knocked to the ground and given two free throws, he suddenly has all eyes on him, and time seems to stand still—not briefly, but for long, agonizing moments as he absorbs the contempt of his teammate and opponents, as well as that paralyzing “feeling of failure that is out of my control.”

I recall that feeling—and the attendant realization that it didn’t matter whether I sank the shot or not. A perfect swish wouldn’t erase the clammy sensations that confirmed—to me if to no one else—my status as a punk. Nothing would, I realized, as the feeling came flooding back Thursday at Columbinus, not even swimming medals, a few decades of adulthood, and a fair measure of worldly success. How could such minor failures ever have seemed so important? And by what blend of hormones and misfiring synapses do they get permanently embedded in the brain, whereas adolescent triumphs flicker and fade?

Watching this riveting theatrical treatise, you may find yourself amazed that anyone emerges unscathed from high school. The second half of the show, which chronicles the increasingly criminal activities of Eric Harris (Karl Miller) and Dylan Klebold (Will Rogers), the disaffected young killers in the Columbine massacre, accumulates tragic force by an accretion of documentary detail. The considerable legerdemain of P.J. Paparelli’s jolt-filled staging, and the initially funny and ultimately harrowing performances of the ensemble notwithstanding, it’s the specificity of the information we’re given about those two angry youths that makes the show effective. But, in retrospect, one of the great strengths of the more amorphous (and currently too-long) first half of the show is its insistence on the general—that fear and pressure can dog not just the punks, goths, and dweebs among us, but also the jocks, nice girls, and BMOC-types who appear to have it all together.

The evening begins with eight essentially interchangeable youths. In their underwear before they dress, before they speak, before they put on the attitudes that define them for their peers and for the adults charged with their welfare, they appear to be blank slates. But some know that they’re golden and others that they’re losers, and, in a series of lightning-fast sketches, we learn who’s figured out how to negotiate school minefields and who suffers from truly alienating personality issues.

Two boys—one tall, awkward, and appealingly goofy; the other compact, quick-witted, and perpetually angry—fit in less well than the others, and once we’ve gotten to know their idiosyncrasies in the first act, they’re given names in the second. The awkward kid is Klebold, the quick one Harris, and except for each other, they’re isolated and terribly alone. Over the course of the evening’s final hour, at first in friendly instant-messaging duels and later in a series of knockdown, fury-stoking arguments, we watch them morph from innocents into mass murderers.

If the first act’s generalized high-school mayhem has the easy grace of choreography, the savage give-and-take in Act 2 feels as precisely calibrated as a stroll on a tightrope. The two leads are scarily in sync, each feeding the other’s fury in delicately shaded ways. Dan Covey’s hard-edged lighting paints them and their classmates into corners; Martin Desjardins’ sound design, after setting various moods with pop songs, finds an efficiently horrifying way to evoke gunfire. Denise Umland’s character-defining school duds, Tony Cisek’s stark gym flooring and stagewide blackboard, and J.J. Kaczynski’s startling projections, which clarify what we’re hearing on archival tapes of the tragedy, all mesh to make the evening’s penultimate moments shatteringly effective. The earnest “aftermath” segment that closes the show is deflating and ill-advised, but the creators are apparently reworking it as I write this.

Originally conceived as a work that would ask questions and leave the task of answering them to a nightly audience discussion at the end of the evening—a cop-out that has wisely been jettisoned—Columbinus has evolved during rehearsals and previews into a starkly effective, soberingly rendered theatrical event. I’m a bit surprised to have to say that it is not—at least at this point in its development—a particularly wrenching one. I was impressed, scared, and provoked, but as the audience filed out at the end, as hushed and respectful as if we’d all been at church, I had to concede that I admired the show more than I was moved by it. Regardless, you’ll want to test your own reactions.

It’s odd to think of a Tennessee Williams play being a work in progress at this late date, but the description certainly fits The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Williams never felt he got this odd saga—of a dying, memoir-dictating ex-Follies girl and the hunky “angel of death” who shows up at her Italian villa to comfort her—quite right. He wrote it in the early ’60s, shortly after his last Broadway success, The Night of the Iguana, and kept tinkering with it as critics talked of the downward spiral he’d slipped into.

In fact, he rewrote and recast Milk Train just a year after it first flopped on Broadway, only to see it flop again. That second production—starring Tallulah Bankhead as Flora Goforth, Tab Hunter as her handsome gigolo, and Marian Seldes as Flora’s acerbic secretary—cemented the play’s rep as essentially unplayable. Bankhead publicly feuded with her director and co-star, complained about the stage assistants who kept intruding on her scenes, and finally asserted herself by mumbling her lines unintelligibly. Understandably, the production closed in less than a week. Boom!, a movie adaptation released five years later, proved equivalently disastrous for lovebirds Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, despite a brief, campy appearance by Noel Coward as the gossipy Witch of Capri.

In short, the Washington Shakespeare Company is heading bravely into pretty dicey territory in reviving Milk Train, and to its credit, the troupe isn’t doing so timidly. Christopher Henley anchors his staging with a trio of sharp central performances—Annie Houston as an alternately flighty and flinty Flora, Marybeth Fritzky as her humorless amanuensis, and Hugh T. Owen as the bleached-blond toyboy who is mauled by dogs as he invades their villa—and then adds extra layers of artifice to proceedings that are already thoroughly nonrealistic. Besides bringing Tennessee Williams (Steve Wilhite) onstage to recite stage directions and complement Flora’s complaints about memoir writing with a few complaints about play-writing, he retains the Kabuki-clad stage assistants (though they’re now serving much the same function onstage that TW is) and has ghosts cavorting behind scrims. He also gooses the comedy where he can, turning the alcohol-soaked scene in which the Witch of Capri (in the delightful, pint-sized person of Suzanne Richard) quizzes Flora about her faltering health into an appealingly ditzy outtake from The Madwoman of Chaillot.

On an extravagantly large playing area, much of which is awkwardly off to one side of the audience, designer Eric Grims has created a sprawling villa with two bedrooms, a sunny patio, and an office for the playwright. Jason Arnold’s illumination fills it with flickering shadows, and costumer Melanie Clark adds splashes of bright color, especially in the spangled dressing gowns favored by Flora.

Alas, there isn’t a lot of stage poetry at the Clark Street Playhouse for audiences to cling to as the evening’s lengthy debates about life and resentment give way to lengthier ruminations on death and disappointment. The playwright’s signature stage figures—dyspeptic aesthete, fading belle, dissolute hunk—are present without seeming entirely accounted for, and his symbolism is looking nearly as frayed as the shredded lederhosen worn by the angel of death before Flora has him don ceremonial samurai robes and a sword.

Which is not to say Milk Train would be better off gathering dust on some library shelf than stammering onstage. As in WSC’s productions of Edward Albee’s eerie Tiny Alice and Eugene O’Neill’s surprisingly funny Strange Interlude, there is a fascination in seeing how lesser works by major authors assert their claims on an audience. In this case, the troupe might have done the playwright a bigger favor by slashing more of his dialogue than by giving voice to his stage directions. Still, coming fresh on the heels of a Williams festival at the Kennedy Center and Orpheus Descending at Arena Stage, there’s plenty here for completists to savor.CP

More from WCP