A woman finds an unknown past in ‘An Unbuilt Life’ at Washington Stage Guild

This mystery is for art lovers and those captivated by the thrill of research, discovery, and the pursuit of truth no matter the cost.

After nearly 50 years of marriage, Agatha Ganner finds herself stepping out into the world on her own. Moving through the typical tasks of settling an estate, it is her late husband’s art collection that presents a distracting mystery when she uncovers an unusual painting buried deep in his workshop. With the assistance of an eager art history graduate student, tracing the origins of the piece soon becomes an all-consuming fascination for them both. But what to do when this seemingly innocuous habit starts unraveling the life she thought she lived and the past she thought she knew?

The world premiere of An Unbuilt Life — by Elizabeth DeSchryver and directed by Steven Carpenter — launches one woman’s curiosity into a shadowed world of forgeries, Nazi art theft, and the complicated question of retribution after nearly a century of pain. Playing at the Washington Stage Guild and closing their 2023/24 season, this mystery is for art lovers and those captivated by the thrill of research, discovery, and the pursuit of truth no matter the cost.

Susan Holliday as Agatha Ganner and JC Payne as Scott Bertram in ‘An Unbuilt Life.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Previously shielded from all parts of life that the men around her thought would be too much for her supposedly fragile nature, Agatha — played by Susan Holliday — is now fighting through confusion in order to grow. As colorful as a favorite lithograph she often talks to, Holliday’s portrayal fluttered throughout. Moving from passive passenger of life to more fully realizing herself and owning her future, Agatha must also reconcile what she discovered with what she once knew to be true. For Agatha, this fight to reclaim her life comes with the question of how to pay the price of other people’s sins.

Helping make sense of the mystery before her is the earnest Scott Bertram played by JC Payne. An art history graduate student working his way through a doctoral degree on the Dutch masters, Scott is young, hopeful, and energetic. Free of moral dilemma (perhaps because he has not lived long enough to understand the complications attached to every decision or because he wishes only to see the world for what it could be), Payne’s Scott offers Agatha encouragement to push forward into finding the truth and righting any wrong within their power — constantly dedicated to truth, the way scholarship should be.

A characteristic and physical foil to Scott’s enthusiasm is his boss and the former business partner of Agatha’s late husband, Paul Carmichael played by David Bryan Jackson. Leading the task of auctioning off the remaining art collection, Jackson brings to life a cynical, cagily cautious man who just wants to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible. Capturing the smugness of the elite, Jackson’s Paul often knew more than he was telling and used that to keep others in line.

TOP: Susan Holliday as Agatha Ganner; ABOVE: JC Payne as Scott Bertram, David Bryan Jackson as Paul Carmichael, and Susan Holliday as Agatha Ganner, in ‘An Unbuilt Life.’ Photos by DJ Corey Photography.

Building out this life being unbuilt was the dedicated design team: Scenic Designer Joseph B. Musumeci Jr., Resident Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows, Resident Costume Designer Sigrid Johannesdottir, Sound Designer
David Bryan Jackson, and Production Stage Manager Elaine Randolph. The layered set design captured the previously prim and proper life of Agatha in floral patterns and antique furniture, sharply contrasted with the modern art preferred by her late husband. The lighting design cleverly used subtle blue uplighting along the back wall to set the visual tone for curiosity, imagination, freedom, and moral dilemmas. And I also very much enjoyed the “choreography” of the stagehands — Noah Wesley and Luca Maggs — with the actors, leaving the stage or taking places. Whether handing Agatha a silver trinket pivotal to the next scene, holding open a door for Scott to walk through, or removing a painting as Agatha sat in the shadowy scene changes, this production intentionally played off backstage-front-stage interactions and made all an active part of the story being told, not just faceless shadows used to advance to the next scene.

In an increasingly connected and complicated world, the pursuit of truth is getting easier but also infinitely more complicated. Can you choose to “unbuild” a life that was built on lies and on untruths? Is it even possible if undoing a wrong of the past creates new loss in the present and thus perpetuates a complicated gray space for legacy, choice, and self? All questions being asked by An Unbuilt Life at the Washington Stage Guild, and answered by those in the audience curious enough to search for them.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

An Unbuilt Life plays through May 5, 2024, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing at The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Prices are $50 for Thursday evening performances and Saturday and Sunday matinees, and $60 for Saturday and Sunday evenings. Students are half-price, and seniors over 65 get a $10 discount. Tickets can be purchased online.

COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended (not required). Washington Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.

An Unbuilt Life
By Elizabeth DeSchryver
Directed by Steven Carpenter

Susan Holliday plays Agatha Ganner
JC Payne plays Scott Bertram
David Bryan Jackson plays Paul Carmichael

Scenic Designer
: Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.
Resident Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows
Resident Costume Designer: Sigrid Johannesdottir
Sound Designer: 
David Bryan Jackson
Production Stage Manager: Elaine Randolph


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