The Welders find their ‘Grail’


Nora Achrati plays a woman on a quest in “The Carolina Layaway Grail,” the first offering from the playwrights’ collective the Welders. (Teresa Castracane)

“I’m a storyteller,” the protagonist, Diana, declares in the opening moments of Allyson Currin’s “The Carolina Layaway Grail,” and what an appropriate prologue for the introductory play by a new company founded and run entirely by Washington playwrights.

The Welders are off and running at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with this sweet-tempered allegory, in which Currin reminds us, with gentle nods to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Don Quixote” and “Alice in Wonderland,” of the centrality of the quest in the motifs of our fables. The play, handled with becoming wryness by director Sonya Robbins and a resourceful design team, wanders occasionally into the patchy terrain of literary self-consciousness (complete with mini-lecture by pompous pedant). But its spirit remains, for the most part, agreeably lighthearted as it traces Diana’s search in city and countryside for the inspiration that will establish her storytelling voice.

This holy “grail” is the one that the six founding members of the Welders — playwrights Currin, Renee Calarco, Bob Bartlett, Gwydion Suilebhan and Caleen Sinnette Jennings, along with creative director Jojo Ruf — all have in mind in the establishment of this unusual endeavor. In this country, stage directors typically run theater companies, as is the case in Washington, with such organizations as Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth. With the Welders, however, the writers have commandeered the front office.

Over the next three years, each of the five dramatists will rotate into the job of artistic director for the presentation of their play. At the end of that time, they all will leave the group, identifying in the interim the next class of Welder-playwrights. (To try to ensure that the company has a future, they’ve created a program putting any money donated by playgoers above the $15-20 ticket price into an account to be used by the next cadre of dramatists.)

It’s at once radical and sensible: Why shouldn’t the people who dream up the plays dream up a whole theater? On a functional level, the dream takes assured shape in the smooth presentation of this first effort, featuring an appealing cast composed of Nora Achrati, Michael John Casey, Nick DePinto, Karen Lange, Jaysen Wright and Jacob Yeh.

Achrati plays Diana, who has been bequeathed a family legacy by her lone surviving relative, Casey’s Duck: the stories they have told, going back many generations. It is family lore that the tales are contained in a baseball-size magic globe. And when the treasured object is misplaced by the ailing Duck, Diana goes off on her quest of recovery, and discovery. But the world is not eager to cooperate. Her path is obstructed by people, humdrum and fanciful, with their own impeding agendas: incompetent bureaucrats (Yeh), self-consumed politicians (Lange), imperious giants (DePinto). Only after she’s accosted by a persistent young man (Wright), who may or may not be a cousin of Sancho Panza or some other such fictional sidekick, does she find a stalwart ally who can help her make some headway.

The whimsical plotting flirts with pretentiousness; one could wish for more vigorous development of the play’s comic impulses, to reduce, just a bit, a veering toward triteness. The play’s structure is tailor-made for amusing vignettes that reflect not only the absurdity of the quest but also the challenges we all face in figuring out who or what we’re meant to be.

Still, Currin succeeds in constructing a charming hybrid world, where practical concerns intermingle with fairy tale trials and challenges. In such a world one hopes Diana will mine her inspiration, and, perhaps, other Welders may, too.

The Carolina Layaway Grail

by Allyson Currin. Directed by Sonya Robbins. Set, John Bowhers; lighting, Jason Arnold; costumes, Gail Stewart Beach; sound, Elisheba Ittoop. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $15-$20. Through Saturday at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or visit www.thewelders.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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