It’s a rare gift to see a play so well written and so effectively acted that it feels like you could see it performed in a lightless cave and still feel the impact. World Builders, written by Johnna Adams and presented by Prologue Theatre, is one of those plays. Character-centric, witty, and sharp, the show depicts the relationship between two characters, Max and Whitney, but is, in its best moments, an exploration of self.
Prologue’s production directed by Jason Tamborini is staged at Atlas Performing Arts Center, where all of this exploration takes place in a very small, tucked-away space that encourages intimacy right away. The cast is also small, with just two very deft actors portraying Max (Harrison Smith) and Whitney (Fabiolla Da Silva), two individuals who find themselves spending time together while they participate in a clinical drug trial to treat schizoid personality disorder. From the moment Smith and Da Silva first interact, their comedic chemistry pops and flickers like a log catching fire. The two play off each other expertly, establishing themselves as individuals, and giving the audience a glimpse into the connection they will develop as the play goes on. We quickly learn through their exchanges that they both prefer to spend time in their respective individual fantasy worlds, which is a part of having schizoid personality disorder.
I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful Da Silva and Smith are in their respective roles. Both bring a deep earnestness to the production, bursting with energy as their own characters but always, always listening to each other and connecting on stage. Smith navigates Adams’s dry dialogue with ease to create a more anxious, avoidant Max who grates against Da Silva’s exuberant, entirely sincere suggestion that they share their worlds with each other. As they continue talking, we learn that because of the drug trial, each feels their personal world dying, and both eventually agree to share about their worlds in order to preserve them.
Although we as an audience never see those worlds, the technical elements of the play do a fantastic job of showing them to us. Lighting (Helen Garica-Alton) dims to spotlight Max and Whitney in different colors while sound design (Dan Deiter) rounds out the picture with intriguing ambient noise. The effect feels like a specific choice not to portray the shift into Max’s or Whitney’s world as a retreat or withdrawal. Instead, it transports the audience halfway there and leaves much to the imagination, creating a connection while protecting Max’s and Whitney’s inner space. The backdrop (scenic design by Willow Watson) perfectly encapsulates a hospital lounge, in its sterility and poor attempt at being comforting. All of these technical elements are beautifully designed, but they also work seamlessly within the play, only ever complementing what happens on stage, so that the characters themselves remain in full focus.
We are then set to watch those characters change, as the drug takes effect and Whitney and Max begin to discover that they have romantic feelings for each other. The audience watches as those feelings take shape, and sees what the two characters come to mean to each other. It’s sweet watching two people find closeness with another human for the first time (a part of schizoid personality disorder is detachment from social relationships), but that closeness centers the concept of love or connection in a very neurotypical, normalized ideal.
The beauty of World Builders is that although it does reach too much toward that conformity, the title alone never allows the audience to forget that Max and Whitney originally connect through their attempts to preserve themselves as individuals. The ending both reinforces a traditional ideal of what connection is, while also reimagining a romantic relationship to be a place where two people can feel safe to fully embrace the way they are and how they prefer to live. The relationship becomes the space where they do not have to conform, where there is a different frame of reference for love that makes more room for self-exploration than attachment or infatuation.
At the end of the day, World Builders pitches itself as a love story, but it’s unclear whether that traditional idea of romantic love is the true takeaway, or if the show is about Max and Whitney creating a new definition. Prologue’s interpretation presents us with both possibilities, and in doing so, gives us a choice. We can take it at face value, and bill it as a rom-com, or challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the normalized romantic ideals that society has given us.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
World Builders plays through February 20, 2022, presented by Prologue Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($20–$35; discounts for students, seniors, educators, military) online.
The online program for World Builders is here.
COVID Safety: All individuals who attend a performance at the Atlas must be fully vaccinated. Children under 12 years of age and patrons with a medical condition or a closely held religious belief that prevents vaccination must provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours prior to entering the theater for admittance to an indoor performance. The full Atlas Health and Safety Policy is here.
World Builders by Johnna Adams
Fabiolla Da Silva (she/her) as Whitney
Harrison Smith (he/him) as Max
Jason Tamborini (he/him), Director, Prologue Theatre Founding Artistic Director
Dan Deiter (he/him), Sound Design
Helen D. Garcia-Alton (she/her), Lighting Design
Willow Watson (he/him), Scenic Design