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A CurtainUp Review
Dreams of the Washer King
By Deborah Blumenthal
Ryan (Ben Hollandsworth) and his mother Claire (Carla Harting) live in the secluded town where Ryan's deceased father moved the family to get away from the city. Now a teenager, Ryan has still not fully come to terms with his father's death. He beiends his new neighbor, Elsie (Reyna de Courcy), and their parents fall into a brief, if predictable, romance. But the play centers not so much on these relationships as on the characters' relationships with the events they jointly experience, and the memories they hold of them.
Giovanna Sardelli (who also helmed the Second Stage productions of Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper and Lila Rose Kaplan’s Wildflower – some of the most affecting pieces in recent memory) directs, and is perhaps the greatest asset to the production.
Dreams of the Washer King is, in fact, somewhat reminiscent of Wildflower in that before the climax and reveal, you sense that the youth-driven play has got a dark hidden secret. Sardelli is adept at shaping these plays, infusing them with emotion, intrigue and exceptional payoff in the end. She makes Dreams of the Washer King thrilling and fulfilling to watch.
Sardelli’s direction is complemented by universally well-drawn performances, particularly by the younger members of the cast. Ben Hollandsworth, a natural young actor, brings earnest mischief and thoughtfulness to Ryan, who is trapped between his past and his present. De Courcy displays the quiet courage of tomboyish Elsie, and though she sometimes sounds like she’s taken line delivery lessons from the characters of Gilmore Girls, gives a moving performance in what may be the plays’ most enigmatic character. As Wade, Elsie’s often-aggressive and troubled father, Stevie Ray Dallimore commands a demanding range of sometimes-uncontrolled emotions to navigate the fraught relationship with his daughter. And Carla Harting, as Claire, the overwhelmed and overworked mother about to unravel, harnesses the appearances of trying to keep it all together while desperately grasping for communication with her son.
The design, too, falls into perfect step with the agitated feeling of the play, and Wall’s delicately powerful writing. The set, light and sound (by David Newell,Traci Kainer and Charles Coes, respectively) create an ambiance that precisely matches what Wall and Sardelli create emotionally – most prominently a house that feels ominous and spooky, like a place that would creak all over and that you wouldn’t want to be alone in at night. Their work enhances the sense of isolation of Ryan and Elsie’s homes – Ryan’s in particular. The rumble of a washer (many of which lay abandoned in a nearby field) underscores much of the play, and assists with the eventual feeling of total emptiness in the surrounding world, like the house is just suspended in some sort of in-between. It holds a distinct feeling of unreality, too, which feeds right back into that rumbling feeling here that something is not quite what it seems—– haunted, if you will. Tmes feel a bit muddled; strange moments begin to be interspersed with increasing frequency that makes you wonder, perhaps uncomfortably, what's going on. At first these moments are just flashes, then they grow longer but remain too short to really piece together within the linear part of the story. This can be frustrating at times, but it does all clear up in an end that stays with you.
The title comes from an old town legend that Ryan relates to Elsie. Gus: an elderly man who lives alone in a shack, once held a dream of refurbishing old appliances and calling himself The Washer King. The success he'd imagined for himself never materializes. Though this seems arbitrary at first, it rather neatly encapsulates the plays' big questions — whether things are merely what we imagine them to be, or, for its two young characters, fear for what their futures might hold. In the end, that titular legend holds an irony, and the scattered washers are much more than that. But you'll have to see it to find out why.