Playwright Pam Mandigo’s Washed is concerned with Big Themes and Big Questions. How does a society function without knowing God? Is redemption possible for even the most vile of criminals? What are the limits of forgiveness?
She and director Alisha Huber, under the guise of The Great American Theater Company, are to be commended for their ambitious thinking. Sadly, the production on hand at Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes is marred by major technical errors, inconsistent acting, and a script that needs to be trimmed by half.
Washed concerns a generic post-apocalypse America in which a section of the Mississippi delta has become a bombed-out, dried-up wasteland. An omnipresent government known as Mission has turned the region into a massive penal colony.
Leah Regan (Caroline Gaddy) awakes one day to find herself the latest prisoner, her crimes being one of the shows central mysteries. She is greeted by aggressively flirtatious neighbor Julius Farr (Dan Lachenman) who may or may not also be local tyrant Mr. Big. Over the course of the years, Leah becomes an outspoken outcast in this misbegotten society, doing her neighbors laundry to scrape together a living. She meets and befriends gregarious young pyromaniac Hannah Megan Heatwole, blessed (cursed?) with prophetic abilities.
One major weakness here is a script in urgent need of cuts. Early scenes are far too chatty, with far too little plot movement. What little detail Mandigo drops about the penal colony and the world outside is vague and far too often repeated. The Revelations-esque devestation of the outside world is revealed, through a letter device that is staged in inconsistent styles, often at odds with each other, leaving key scenes difficult to follow.
Much of the second act is padded by the characters entertaining and educating themselves with readings from the book of Exodus or singing each other psalms. Biblical themes of oppression, shame, and forgiveness abound, but Mandigo’s script offers few new insights. A late developing rape subplot seems especially egregious, dropped in to provide the night with Big Drama, only to be summarily dismissed without much impact.
A story about the redemptive power of forgiveness is all well and good, but when said forgiveness is given so casually and off-hand, the potential power of the act is lost.
Serious technical glitches further hampered Thursday night’s opening performance. Most glaring of these involved one of Huber’s primary theatrical devices. Approximately one third of the play is meant to be performed in silhouette, via full-body shadows projected against an ever rotating collection of laundry hung up to dry. Very cool in theory. Sadly enough, the technique failed more often than not. Sheets were hung either too high or too low, making the actors’ bodies perfectly visible outside the projection area.
The fact that these vignettes were often preceded by transitions nearly as long as the scenes themselves did not help. An attempted intermission fix didn’t quite do the trick, I am honestly sad to say. A major disappointment.
I’m inclined to believe that Great American’s unfortunate choice of venue is a major factor here. They have set themselves up in what is essentially a basement rec room hastily shifted around, leaving Great American with little in the way of technical accoutrement or adequate sight-lines.
Other unforced errors and strange stylistic choices left this critic scratching his head.
Washed is rife with water and baptism imagery, yet not one drop of water appears on stage. This is a baffling choice given the sheer amount of time Gaddy spends in front of a large, rattling metal bucket running clothes along a bone-dry washboard. This mistake seems more egregious given a later baptism/bath that takes place in that same tub. So many missed opportunities for stunning imagery.
Major plot points are conveyed via Hannah’s prophetic drawings. But here, again, Huber makes a most untheatrical choice, directing Heatwole to “draw” her prophecies out on a bare floor with a bare finger. This leads to long scenes of people staring in awe or rage at a blank black floor describing unseen, often disturbingly violent, images. The technique, or lack of it, drains these moments of any potential power in a major violation of “show, don’t tell”. This results in some unintentional comedy when actors are clearly describing the same “image” while staring at entirely different spots on the floor over the course of a scene.
There are occasional bright spots that lead me to believe that theatrical redemption is possible. Heatwole is the highlight, giving the night’s most energetic performance, and she plays a pleasant banjo. She and castmate Esther Stenson are blessed with sweet, folksy singing voices, equipping themselves nicely during several on-stage psalms. Gaddy and Lachenman share a late scene that flashes a dark wit missing through much of the evening.
I sincerely hope the lovely folks at Great American have the opportunity to fix some of these issues, technical and otherwise, over the course of their Fringe run. But sadly, their show cannot be recommended in it’s current unpolished state.
A note on runtime: all Fringe materials list Washed as running 90 minutes. Thursday’s performance ran approximately 130 with a ten-minute intermission. Adjust your tight Fringe schedules accordingly.
Washed has 3 more performances at the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes, 1217 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC.
Ryan rates this a 2 out of a possible 5.