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Who hasn’t, in the wake of a loved one’s passing, wished for a world without death, or bargained with death’s hypothetical doorman for one last goodbye?

Erin Bregman‘s A Bid to Save the World, one of Source Festival’s three full-length offerings, imagines a world where that wish is granted, and where that doorman (or, in this case, doorwoman) makes snarky comebacks with a mouth full of orange slices. The play is of the “four seemingly unrelated stories eventually tie together” variety, with each narrative centering, in ways both transparent and not, on death.

At the outset, a young woman (Anna Lynch) cries over the wheelchair of her deceased brother, refusing offers of solace from an older man (their father?).  The chair remains onstage, in the corner, for the duration of the show—-a fitting emblem of the constant, hovering presence of grief after a tragedy. In a parallel story, two high-schoolers, living in a bewildering future where death has been eliminated (but librarians still use card catalogs), embark on a renegade quest to find out how people used to die, and attempt a reenactment. Rafael Sebastian and Natasha Gallop are convincing naifs as Adam and Evelyn, but this storyline’s attempt at comic relief is overdone. The teens watch a slideshow of old causes of death, cartoonishly demonstrated by four actors who later play applicants for Adam and Evelyn’s amateur death study. Both scenes are slapstick bids for laughs that feel out of place in an otherwise sensitive play.

Another narrative doesn’t immediately fit the theme: a facile, feel-good “We are the World” tale whose characters narrate their own actions in third person. This one’s a key to weaving the four stories together, though the connecting threads are less than neat—-a confusion stemming, perhaps, from the casting of most of the actors in multiple roles.

The production works best in its more poetic moments. The lyrical movement and a cappella songs are beautiful, bringing out the emotions at the heart of each story when words fall short. Tiny scraps of paper litter the floor of the set, part of a mantra-driven ritual that, repeated at length, offers some modicum of comfort to those in mourning; time and repetition, it turns out, can salve most wounds. Death is at once the thing humans have most in common and the thing we know least about—-but, like the scraps of paper, it surrounds us. We don’t have to understand it for it to tear us apart.

The play begins at 9 p.m. tonight at Source, 1835 14th St. NW, $15 – $32.

Photo by C. Stanley Photography