Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

As the audience arrives these nights at Signature Theatre, it’s greeted by dust in the air, feathers on the floor, a woman who dances to a melody only she can hear, and a man in a skullcap moving around the stage like a chicken. Also, there are three bagged figures (as in: up to their necks in burlap sacks) who will soon be referred to as “loonies” by characters who sing mournfully that on “Sunday in the village square, a boy flew through the air.”

All of these characters—protagonists in Heather McDonald’s new play with music, Available Light—are barefoot, their feet stained the color of a fine merlot, so when their song mentions “blood in the square,” you feel a slight chill. Also alarming is their casual scorn for intellectual pursuits—”Why are you always reading those books?” mother asks son. “They’ll give you ideas”—and a communal taste for superstition that has

everyone panicking when the sky turns yellow.

The year, says the program, is 1835, but after glancing at Anne Kennedy’s rough-hewn costumes and listening to the characters chatter about witches, you may suspect that someone has reversed those middle digits. Especially when Pierre (Jason Bowcutt), the boy who wants to fly, starts catching birds and tying weights to their legs—experiments that make him appear a sort of proto-Leonardo da Vinci. Still, there’s also evidence that we are indeed in the 19th, rather than the 14th, century, notably that Napoleon’s name crops up in conversation, Pierre’s dad rosins up a violin bow, and Pierre’s mom starts challenging patriarchal notions of property ownership.

I mention all this by way of noting that McDonald has a lot going on, both in her script and in her staging—too much, really, for an audience to have much chance of getting its bearings. Basically, the show is about Pierre, an imaginative lad whose psyche gets warped by parental feuding to the point that he commits what Signature’s press releases are calling “the crime of the 19th century.” There’s so much sideline activity, however, that it isn’t clear until deep in Act 2 even that the evening centers on Pierre, let alone that he’s on the verge of turning homicidal.

Among the many distractions: Pierre’s brother, Jules (Jeff Lofton), who evidently became a simpleton when a midwife kneaded his newborn skull hoping to make him look more aristocratic; their 14-year-old sister, Clothilde (Colleen Delany), who’s been cutting off snippets of her own hair in hopes of amassing enough to sell to a wigmaker for the price of a harvest-ball gown; and their mom (Naomi Jacobson, marvelously direct and forceful), who so misses the aristocratic life she once lived that she sneaks off to play dress-up in the woods whenever she gets a chance. Because of these little excursions, the locals have branded her a witch—which can only help her husband (Mark Alan Gordon) when she hauls him into court in a fatally miscalculated attempt to recover her dowry. There’s more—satirical jabs at the clergy and a wealthy landlord (Jonathan Tindle in cartoonish overdrive)—but none of it really leads anywhere, except around in circles.

The audience at Sunday’s preview seemed perfectly willing to follow McDonald wherever she wanted to spiral off to, but by intermission, after watching actors earnestly stirring buckets of feathers and cracking fart jokes, most patrons just seemed dizzy. The playwright hadn’t yet made clear what Available Light was about—she was, in fact, being willfully obscure—and the audience was clearly tiring of having to decipher her intentions from unnecessarily cryptic clues.

As usual with McDonald—whose previous works include the riveting An Almost Holy Picture and the quirkily engaging Dream of a Common Language—the writing is evocative, even when it isn’t adding up to much. There’s poetry in the air, for instance, when Pierre’s mom speaks ruefully of stealing away from the vineyard to “watch the fog smother the woods.” And when another character calls suicide “the violence of the inconsolable heart,” you get a sense of the eloquence that Signature’s powers that be must have heard in the script.

Their one mistake was allowing the author to stage the play herself, chiefly because she’s chosen to match her verbal imagery with visuals that prove even more symbolic and abstract. Among the piling up of feathers, the winding of twine in artful patterns around poles, and the choreographing of everything from courtroom battles to homicides, the author’s words barely have a chance to register. And because those words are often dancing in artful patterns themselves (sometimes even being sung, to a complexly intriguing score by David Maddox), rather than marching listeners toward cogent points, they really need to come through clearly.

Because every cast member has shone brightly in less opaque material, it’s hard to fault the performers for not being able to overcome the script’s shortcomings. Asked to play small children; to double and triple in roles; to wear, to sing, and to do things that flat-out make no sense, they’re never less than game. Unfortunately, they’re never more than mildly persuasive, either.

And at the conclusion of two mostly perplexing hours, they have remarkably little to show for their efforts, because Available Light turns out to be about nothing more complicated than the notion that faith, class, and family pressures make people crazy. Pierre, it seems, was trying to fly so he could be closer to God, and his mom became a proto-feminist because she had married beneath her station. Light as a feather, that. And not a little deflating. CP