Joseph Campbell taught that myth is a mirror for the ego. So it is through myth that protagonist Diana examines her life experience in Allyson Currin’s The Carolina Layaway Grail, the auspicious debut production of The Welders, a promising new DC-based playwrights collective.
Diana (Nora Achrati), born a down-on-her-luck Carolina girl, pulls herself up by her bootstraps to become a scholar of mythology. As storyteller, she weaves a tale of her life growing up with her grandfather “Duck” (Michael John Casey), and of his abrupt physical decline due to Parkinson’s Disease. When it becomes impossible to communicate with her grandfather, she turns inward for answers to a monomythic “City” peopled with archetypical public servants and other denizens who help and hinder her on her quest.
A great strength of the production is the relationship drawn between Diana and Duck, and specifically the engaging performances by Achrati and Casey in roles so well suited you might suspect Currin wrote her play with these actors in mind. Achrati’s “Diana” is a dynamic and commanding storyteller, and she makes seamless transitions between her various flashback ages, ranging from early childhood to present. Casey brilliantly portrays a stark contrast between the vibrant and crass pre-Parkinsons “Duck,” and the hauntingly realistic vegetative manifestation of the disease. Karen Lange also makes a delightful foil as the sassy nurse “Killer.” The scenes between them, set in a world of Diane’s memory, feel personal and evoke a strong emotional connection.
Somewhat less compelling are the scenes set in the mythic City, which add a touch of fantasy, but also create an emotional distance between the well-drawn central characters and the audience. This may well be the intention, as if Diane is putting the broken pieces of her life into a box and sorting through them. As the play becomes more focused on deconstructing myth, there is the occasional moment that might serve no other purpose than to tick off a step in The Hero’s Journey – such as one meandering scene between Diane and her Sidekick (an endearing Jaysen Wright) in “the belly of the beast.” Currin also peppers her script with meta humor that speaks to the Humanities and Lit majors in the crowd, if it goes over the heads of others.
Director Sonya Robbins’ staging is fluid and imaginative, particularly in the myth scenes, where she creates some rather magical moments of low-budget spectacle (assisted in great part by the talents of Scenic Designer John Bowhers, Lighting Designer Jason Arnold, and Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop). As a fabulous “Gatekeeper” and smarmy “Man,” Nick DePinto is the caliber of actor that requires you to double-check your program to confirm the same person played both roles. Jacob Yeh’s frantic turn as a White Rabbit-like “Magician” doesn’t quite mesh with the chill, quasi-realistic world of the City created by Robbins and her ensemble.
The Welders’ The Carolina Layaway Grail boldly proclaims there is no Santa Claus. There is no Easter Bunny. There’s not even a Tooth Fairy. It might seem a dreary revelation that there is no meaning in the story of our lives, but Currin’s play finds hope and a little bit of magic in the thought that our loved-ones and ancestors live on forever with us in the stories that we tell.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with no intermission.
The California Layaway Grail plays through April 5, 2014 at Atlas Performing Arts Center — 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets here.