Lee Mikeska Gardner and David Bryan Jackson knew a lot about each other before joining — or, more accurately, becoming — the cast of “The Two-Character Play” at Spooky Action Theater. They were in a relationship that ended 10 years ago; they have a son.
But there was one thing they didn’t know anything about: the play.
Jackson hadn’t read the play before he auditioned. Gardner said she’d never even heard of it.
“It’s not one of Tennessee Williams’s ‘safe bet’-type plays,” Jackson said. “The Two Character Play” plot is confusing and even convoluted (Jackson describes it as “a Russian nesting doll of performance.”) Jackson and Gardner play Felice and Claire, a brother-and-sister acting duo. The two are codependent, traumatized by the bloody deaths of their parents. They slip and slide back and forth between illusion and reality as they perform a play within the play, which is also called “The Two-Character Play,” in which Felice and Claire play a brother and sister named (. . . wait for it) Felice and Claire.
“No one knows what actually is going on here,” Gardner said. “It’s impenetrable.”
Though Gardner and Jackson auditioned separately, both say their shared history has been an asset to the production.
“We have a family connection. We’re very close. We see a lot of each other,” Jackson said. “This is the first time we’ve worked onstage together for a long time, but because we have a personal history with each other — which is certainly not a sibling history, we were a couple —but the aftermath of that is, you do have an intimacy and a mutual understanding and knowledge of each other.”
“It made the working process really easy, because there was no having to ‘get to know you’ and ‘be polite to another actor’ phase,” Gardner said.
“It was a little hard at first [to] not be self-conscious about being vulnerable,” she said. “Because although David and I are great co-parents . . . we had put distance between ourselves since we broke up. . . . To have to be vulnerable with him again after a long time, that took me a while to have to go: Okay, just get over that. And that was just a shyness on my part. And once I identified that . . . I think that we’ve been great together.”
“We understand each other’s approaches and techniques,” Jackson said. “I think there’s a certain shorthand involved. . . . And because of knowing each other emotionally as well, it does add a resonance to the dynamic between the characters.”
“The Two-Character Play” deals with the fallout of messy family history.
“We discovered that, in the play, Felice and Claire’s memory of what happened to them don’t have to be the same,” Gardner said. “There’s things that we acknowledge happened, but there’s a big old mystery about things that are never explained. Our rationale for those doesn’t have to be the same. And that made it easier for me to go, oh, my memory can be this, and this plot and this reference make sense to me, and that’s what that’s about, even if it doesn’t have to match David’s [memory]. Otherwise we’d be playing psychopaths.”
Jackson used to be literary manager for Olney Theatre Center, “so I tend to take a bit of a dramaturgical approach. . . . Because the play itself is enigmatic in ways, it sort of lends itself to really trying to find out a lot behind the page.”
“You can see many themes in this play which relate directly to some of his earlier plays,” he said. “Clearly there are echoes of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in this play, the relationship of a brother and sister, the relationship of the parents, the way that they’re kind of locked in that dynamic imposed by their family situation.”
Gardner is finding her way into her character through a more personal path: her mother. She “had agoraphobia, was depressed, and was an alcoholic and was on medication for depression,” Gardner said. “What I remember of her growing up . . . is how much she kept her sense of humor. And even though she was struggling . . . she showed up every day. She was sort of a wreck of a mother, and she did the best she could.”
“As I looked at Claire . . . I can see, she uses humor a lot to be strong, to be brave, to deflect, to not be afraid. And that’s where I draw from my family history.”
For Felice and Claire, Gardner said, “This is sort of their version of drama psychotherapy. [They’re] working out what happened, how they’re going to move forward. The play within a play is their version of therapy, which makes it ever-changing. And they talk about that in the play: that it never ends.”
Thursday to Oct. 27, 1810 16th St. NW, www.spookyaction.org, 202-248-0301
Is anyone safe from the government shutdown? Employees furloughed, national parks shuttered, the panda cam powered off for who knows how long. Theatergoers, take note: Ford’s Theatre Society is a private nonprofit organization that uses no federal funding or employees for productions. That’s the good news. The bad news is, because of Ford’s Theatre’s designation as a historical site, the theater itself cannot be used during the shutdown.
Tuesday night’s press performance of “The Laramie Project” was held at Woolly Mammoth. Patrons with tickets to “Laramie” and other Lincoln Legacy Project events will be notified by Ford’s with information about future performances.
The Center for Education and Leadership, at 514 10th St., will remain open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the shutdown, which means you can still visit the “Not Alone: The Power of Response” temporary exhibit.
For more information, visit www.fordstheatre.org.