Hazardous Materials by Beth Kander has a fascinating premise about the precarious nature of lives lived, tangled relationships, degenerative impacts of solitude, aloneness, and eventual potential for degradation. The story toggles between 1955 and 2015 and presents characters from the early period and the workers who are subsequently impacted by the history.
Hal and Cassie enter a decrepit rundown Chicago apartment filled with clutter from hoarding and neglect. The two county inspectors have been sent to determine the identity of the occupant who recently died there, thus setting up the hazardous conditions.
The apartment seems almost to have a life of its own as a character; those walls have seen it all throughout the years. The workers in full hazmat gear can barely enter with all the junk blocking the door, but finally, they get in and clarify their assignment — to identify the “Jane Doe” who died there several weeks prior. They remove their headgear and start looking through piles of moldy and decaying items while dealing with the stench of decay.
Cassie is quiet and frustrated to be saddled with a talkative “newbie” in the field, but they both settle into a collegial routine to go about their work. When Hal puts on an Ella Fitzgerald record that still works, Cassie shushes him from chattering: No one talks over Ella. The music wafts and the lights shift to the other side of the stage, which shows a mirror image of the same apartment only pristine and colorful. Here Esther, a Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia who has recently moved in (Kullan Edberg), is dancing and swaying to the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald playing in the background. Lynley, an African American neighbor (Dawn Thomas Reidy), visits bringing a large welcoming cake, and their connection and touching communication begin. The women have very different backgrounds but share enough similarities to form a bond to nourish them, a bond that also gets them in trouble down the road.
The scenes alternate seamlessly between the two eras and sides of the stage thanks to an incredible scenic design by Jessica Trementozzi, lighting by Hailey LaRoe, sound design by Cheryl J. Williams, and the never-ending efforts of Liz Long to handle the voluminous props. We get a snapshot of the two women in younger vibrant years while mindful that the apartment’s demise represents their own. Meanwhile, the inspectors share more of their lives with each other and we appreciate seeing how the initial tension gives way a bit over the hours. Seth Rosenke plays the new worker Hal with a bustle of energy, inquisitive with snappy remarks. This is his first foray into this kind of mess, and he keeps trying to turn it into an exciting C.S.I. crime scene. What, no murder? That’s not fun. Jessica Ludd’s Cassie is weathered, measured, and no-nonsense. Cassie is controlled and tightly wound as she rejects Hal’s attempt to be a buddy, but she softens and reveals peeks into her own vulnerability in effective moments, nicely directed by Lizzi Albert.
I’ve followed Dawn Thomas Reidy’s fabulous work over the years and was thrilled to see how she met her match with Kullan Edberg. Their scenes are a roller coaster of emotions, and the actors complement each other with impeccable timing, delivery, and trust. The intuitive reactions to each other match anything I’ve seen on big stages — to witness that kind of artistry in a small setting up close is a gift. Again, exquisite direction by Albert helps peel back layers of experiences and traumas in both pairs of characters with clarity and tenderness. The spirit of Esther and Lynley in the apartment is so strong that in one scene Hal looks briefly over as if he can see them. He’s got a surprising perceptive sense but then makes his own discoveries and decisions about his life that make you wonder about his current and future life choices. There’s a lot to ponder.
Cheryl J. Williams’ sound and music design work is noteworthy with opening songs ranging from Earth, Wind and Fire to Mahalia Jackson, with Jennifer Holiday sprinkled in during intermission for a full musical span over generations. Costume designer Jessica Utz was totally on point with Lynley entering wearing short white dress gloves, then Esther catches up in subsequent scenes wearing cozy burgundy pedal-pushers as she becomes acclimated to the culture, then a colorfully sparkling designed skirt at the end as she moves on in the world.
Perisphere Theater is a gem of a company that produces only one or two shows a year, and I’m thrilled to have seen all of them. The company’s productions, in various venues and black boxes around town, have been Helen Hayes nominated and awarded. Their mission is to produce plays “that examine personal and collective history and the notion of history itself,” and in my view, they are fulfilling their vision to provide a “theater experience that gives audiences a greater appreciation of history and of those who are often left out of its retelling.” For this show, don’t let the title turn you away. This isn’t hazardous or toxic material at all; it is instead a welcome reminder of the vital impact we have on each other in mindful moments that can last through space and time.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Hazardous Materials plays through November 18, 2023, presented by Perisphere Theater performing at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD. Purchase tickets ($35, general; $30, senior; $20, student) online. This venue is wheelchair accessible and offers wheelchair-accessible seating.
The program for Hazardous Materials is online here.
Hazardous Materials by Beth Kander
Seth Rosenke (Hal)
Jessica Ludd (Cassie)
Kullan Edberg (Esther)
Dawn Thomas Reidy (Lynley)
Director: Lizzi Albert
Assistant Director/Assistant Stage Manager: Anthony De Souza
Stage Manager: Holly Morgan
Scenic Designer: Jessica Trementozzi
Costume Design: Jessica Utz
Lighting Design: Hailey LaRoe
Sound Designer: Cheryl J. Williams
Props Designer: Liz Long
Jessica Utz on designing costumes for ‘Hazardous Materials’ at Perisphere (interview, November 7, 2023)