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

There are children who thrive under their parents’ wing, children who can’t until they’ve left the nest, and children who never shake the parental stink from their feathers. The writer Jane Bowles appears to have been one of the last category, at least on the evidence of In the Summer House, which makes a great deal of fuss about stifling mothers and their frustrated daughters. Self-consciously moody, paced like the slow drip of water torture, structured like a sophomore drama project, and mired in the dreariest kind of self-pity, it’s the sort of psychologically ponderous claptrap that will infuriate half of any given ticket-buying population—and somehow Steven Scott Mazzola and the Washington Shakespeare Company have made something disturbingly hypnotic of it.

Maybe it’s that Mazzola just has a way with this sort of dreamy, sad material; Summer House follows hard on the hallucinatory melancholy of Hotel Universe, the Philip Barry rarity he staged so beautifully for the American Century Theater earlier this year.

Or maybe it’s that he’s found an actress who can make the central character’s inertia seem pitiable rather than pathetic: Sarah Gitenstein’s forlorn Molly wears care like a bruise near her expressive eyes, which fill up with fearful dreams when she’s alone and empty themselves to an awful flatness whenever her domineering mother (Maura McGinn) enters the picture.

Or perhaps it’s that Mazzola has discovered, once again, a way to bring out the bigger themes hidden among the bones of an unwieldy play. A sort of Electra complex may run in the family—Molly’s long-dead grandfather still dictates the course her mother, Gertrude, moves so rigidly along, and that terrible dependence keeps Gertrude cinching her own apron strings ever tighter even as another part of her pushes Molly desperately away—but Mazzola’s direction points up a thread of argument that’s less concerned with the terrors of psychodynamics than with the tyranny of norms and expectations. There are perils involved with both living up to and living outside of them, Bowles points out, risks and rewards associated with each, and the characters in Summer House have the worst time deciding whether to leap into experience or stay comfortably cocooned in what they know. It’s the tension and heartbreak of that eternal indecision that Mazzola exploits to such powerful effect.

The people negotiating this fraught territory include the awkward local boy Lionel (Tim Getman), the high-spirited visitor (Jeanne Dillon) who momentarily distracts him from Molly, and that girl’s mother (Annie Houston), a less brittle, less brutal schoolmate of Gertrude’s whose relationship with her own daughter is the equally toxic inverse of Gertrude and Molly’s. An earthy restaurant owner (Linda High) and a Mexican clan led by Daniel Mont’s bluff paterfamilias travel alongside, often appalled but otherwise relatively unaffected by the others, as the plot weaves its way through a halting romance, a gothic seaside tragedy, and a long second act devoted mainly to freeing Molly at last from the terrible tidal push-pull of Gertrude’s influence.

The play would be insufferable with a less talented foursome at its center, but Gitenstein, Getman, Houston, and McGinn respond to Mazzola’s lyrical style with performances as notable for their restraint as for their individual quirkiness. And Summer House might not work at all in a less carefully crafted production; Mazzola and his creative team echo the languid surreality of Bowles’ dialogue with a design scheme that emphasizes the disjointed nature of every relationship in the play. (David Ghatan did the vast, spare sets, Don Slater the warm lighting, Edu. Bernardino the rich costumes, and Richard Renfield the eerie sound.)

Each of the central characters eventually finds or is forced into a kind of epiphany, of course, but in Bowles’ bleak world that doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness for any of them. As the lights go down for the last time, the central dynamic has but reversed itself; Gertrude, returned from an escape too foreign for her to stomach, is the prisoner of her own thoughts now, and if Molly has found the courage to seize the freedom her marriage to Lionel promises, Bowles points toward a future full of banalities every bit as crushing as the exotica that sent Gertrude fleeing for home.

For all that they’ve struggled, suffered, torn at each other and torn the very fabric of their life apart, at the end Gertrude and Molly have changed nothing except their places on the wheel. Bowles makes that at most a hollow, sickening sort of discovery; Mazzola and his cast make it a haunting one.

You’d think there would be at least a few similarly vivid moments in a show that throws everything from dancing lobsters to singing turtles at the audience, but Wonderland Alice never gets much beyond strenuous whimsy.

Oh, there are certainly some striking images: A quadruple Alice traipses through the show, exactly as though Joe Banno’s Hamlet had tumbled into Wonderland, and having four bright young figures in variations on blue gingham lets director Keith Alan Baker do neat things with the “Eat Me/Drink Me” sequence and other manifestations of the title character’s odd-woman-outness.

The four of them (Amy Clarke, Kelly Ewing, Tara Garwood, and K. Clare Johnson) pass the White Rabbit’s dropped glove back and forth like a talisman, trading long knowing looks with actor John Slone, a creepily charismatic figure who takes turns as the Cheshire Cat, the White Knight, and Lewis Carroll himself. That the author figures as prominently as he does—he follows most of the proceedings with a disturbingly intense focus, often sitting on the sidelines with one of the unoccupied Alices—says something about what Baker and his cast are getting at with this largely improvised “built” piece. Though the program notes studiously make no mention of it, Wonderland Alice seems as concerned with the question of Carroll’s latent pedophilia (debated for decades, recently disputed by at least one scholar) as with anything else; its Alice is a sexually knowing thing who gets a distinct groove on with the decidedly hunky Gryphon (Peter Klaus), though her amorous tendencies hardly seem out of place alongside a dominatrix Duchess (Cassie Tietgen) and her chained-up Cook (Christine Herzog).

Mirrors hang from the ceiling and throw the audience’s distorted faces back at them from behind the stage, but Baker and his cast aren’t interested in any of Carroll’s coded reflections on Victorian society and its attitudes toward class, race, or even drug use. (OK, maybe drug use—the whole evening feels like a garish acid trip.)

Instead, they trip merrily through a series of dubiously entertaining skitlets, which seem to be drawn more or less faithfully from the text, and musical numbers, which clearly aren’t: Chess pieces vogue their way across the board to the strains of that Madonna tune, while the Mock Turtle slides his way, James Brown-style, through an awkward adaptation of “I Feel Good” that has something to do with a soup recipe.

Amid all the hit-and-miss improvisation, there are quick flashes of brilliance—the actress Suzanne Richard employs both her size and her crutches to considerable comic effect as the bloodthirsty Red Queen and later turns in a White Queen remarkable for her fragile charm. And Johnson, the odd Alice out in hip-hugger jeans and a middy top that bares her belly-button ring, has a curious Kewpie charm that’s all too appropriate given the production’s fixation with its heroine’s sexuality.

Mostly, though, the evening feels like a scattered if playful drama-class exercise—and, like Baker’s similarly built Wild Party a couple of seasons back, it doesn’t know when to stop playing. Whether your Wonderland comes with or without sexual overtones, two hours plus is rather more whimsy than anyone needs. CP