If you are at all like me, as you are watching the new play (a love story) at this year’s Source Festival, memories of the most intense of feelings will mingle with thoughts of small moments from your past. Your mind will veer between considering the most existential of questions to thinking about the most quotidian of concerns. The specific events in the lives of the characters will remind you of and trigger you to reflect upon moments in your own life. The emotional lives of these people will, at times, echo your own experiences.
This play by Kelly Lusk is beautifully observed, emotionally resonant, hilariously funny, and deeply poignant. It reminded me of late nights in the dark, drinking vodka and listening to The Smiths on my headphones, and feeling that the lyrics were overwhelmingly pertinent to my life. The realization that feelings so personal and so intense can also be shared by different people in different circumstances is at once surprising and consoling.
The Smiths song in particular that came to my mind during the play was “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Like this play, that song concerns love (or infatuation); the awkwardness and even the humiliation that often attends the admission of deep feelings; the attendant risk of expressing those feelings; and the extent to which that risk can be (or can be wished to be) mortal.
“Le petit mort” (the little death) is a French phrase used to describe orgasm. I thought about that phrase because the play’s recurring motifs involve the realization of feelings for another, the often fumbling expression of those feelings, the implications of those feelings on one’s self-esteem and on one’s existing relationships, and the association of romantic loss with ultimate loss.
The play takes place in an unnamed small town in a part of the country that could be Anywhere, USA. We meet three couples who are either meeting for the first time, or are expressing feelings for each other for the first time. Anne (Sarah Gavitt-Mendez) is a single mother who writes a sort-of blog novel; Jack (Zach Brewster-Geisz) reads it online and, taking a risk, contacts Anne, and the two meet. Richard (Shane O’Loughlin) spends a lot of time in his room with his plants, who are his closest friends and with whom he shares his secrets; Emily (Christie Jackson) thinks Richard is cute and takes a risk by expressing her feelings, despite the fact that her close friend David has been bullied by Richard and can’t understand the attraction. Meanwhile, David (Ben Lauer) finds that his feelings for Greg (Drew Paramore) are reciprocated; David had written a “the first time I saw you” letter that he reads early in the play.
As the play goes on, we learn that the three couples’ lives intersect in ways of which we hadn’t been immediately aware. The hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, consummations and ruptures that accompany each relationship echo tellingly and elegantly in Lusk’s wonderful script.
Anne has lost her husband, Greg’s father, in a random act of violence; Emily watches as Richard drowns ants; and the first act ends with a series of nightmares involving water, dreams that feel shared yet distinct, and which echo the motifs already established. I was reminded of a line from King Lear: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” And we come to realize in Act Two, as connections to and relationships with other characters are revealed, why Richard has a disturbing violent streak.
Lusk accomplishes an admirable dramatic hat trick — revelation that surprises but that also is not jarring because, on an important level, it fits. He had me in the palm of his hand, but wondering where we were going. During the last twenty minutes or so, I wasn’t completely happy with where he took us, and the first sniff of a “would he really?” question popped into my mind, but the resolution was a thing of beauty and was unexpectedly and deeply moving.
The production by Jess Jung realizes this beautiful play artfully and engagingly. The set — in an alley formation — may have been a given, one on which all of the festival will perform, but it works like a dream for this play, enabling quick shifts of location, as well as simultaneous action. The cast is rounded out by three actors (Julia Klavans, David Mavricos, Jack Novak) who operate as narrators, inner voices, and even as Richard’s beloved plants. They emerge and recede smoothly from stage to aisles, even to empty seats — a constant, but never intruding or extraneous, presence.
June 5 – 28
(a love story)
1835 14th Street, NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $10 – $32
Details and Tickets or call 866.811.4111
Jung embellishes the script unerringly, whether with a snap of fingers to accompany an early speech, or by animating a magical fairy tale, or bringing the fauna to life. Each of the three full-length plays establishes a festival-wide theme, and for (a love story) the theme is “love and botany,” so you might expect that actors would be called upon to do some cross-kingdom casting — and for the writer to receive a gift of pencils presented as if they were a flower bouquet.
Jung has coaxed finely-observed performances from a strong cast, only one of whom I had ever seen before. (Novak was in the cast of Blue at Imagination Stage, which I saw earlier this year with my kids.) Source has always been a place to see young talent get an early chance, but a festival of this sort can also seem rough on occasion, with work that is either under-rehearsed or awkwardly-cast. Not so here. This play has been thoroughly explored and the performances are delivered with striking precision, detail, and empathy.
This is a play that is extremely rich, not only in its subject and in its observation, but in its resonance for those of us lucky enough to find it and to experience its portrait of the sweetness of first meetings, first confessions, first consummations, first disappointments.
It’s a play that feels fresh and current, and, with ticket prices at only $20 (less if you buy a series pass), it is theatre that is accessible. It was great to see an audience that skewed young, though disappointing that there were empty seats the night I attended. This is a work that would be embraced by many who, instead of theatre-going, were bar-hopping up and down 14th Street.
You’ve heard of the phrase “crowd-sourcing?” My advice: crowd Source. I bet that you will be glad you did.
(a love story) by Kelly Lusk . Directed by Jess Jung. Featuring Drew Paramore, Ben Lauer, Christie Jackson, Shane O’Loughlin, Sarah Gavitt-Mendez, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Julia Klavans, David Mavricos, and Jack Novak. Set Design: Robbie Hayes .Lighting Design: Brian S. Allard .Costume Design: Heather Whitpan .Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith .Prop Design: Britney Mongold .Assistant Director: Lelia TahaBurt . Dramaturgy: Allison Bucca .Composition: Shane O’Loughlin .Stage Manager: Sharon Achtenberg . Rehearsal Stage Manager: Magdalena Schutzler .
The 2015 Source Festival is produced by CulturalDC. Source Festival Artistic Director: Jenny McConnell Frederick. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.
[Christopher Henley worked extensively at Source Theatre Company during the 1980s, and acted in and directed for the first Source Festival, then called Washington Theatre Festival. He has participated in panels that selected Festival participants in recent years, but was not involved in any staffing for this year’s festival.]