Cleanup, Stage Left, At Woolly Mammoth

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 15, 2008

One challenge of "Maria/Stuart," Jason Grote's family dramedy with a supernatural twist that premieres next week at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is that the play is messy for all involved.

Not thematically messy, the way "Hamlet" is. "Maria/Stuart" is messy in the way that plays about dysfunctional families prone to fighting about and with food -- and that happen to be terrorized by a soda-spilling, German-quoting, shape-shifting demon -- are messy. Efficient between-scene cleanup is essential, says director Pam MacKinnon.

But MacKinnon doesn't shy away from challenges: Last year at Woolly Mammoth, she directed "The Unmentionables," which took a hard look at Western meddling in African affairs. "Maria/Stuart" confines its explorations to the buried secrets of a single Jewish family in suburban New Jersey. But from MacKinnon's point of view, the two shows are similar in scope: Both unfold in a single "highly pressurized room," she says, "in which a small group of people can't escape until they accomplish something."

"Maria/Stuart" follows three generations as they prepare a birthday celebration for their matriarch, their scabs picked by the reappearance of an otherworldly visitor whose existence, along with other familial bombshells, they have long denied.

MacKinnon, who is based in New York, cast her female roles with Washington regulars: Sarah Marshall plays matriarch Ruthie; Emily Townley is one of her daughters; Naomi Jacobson is the mentally ill aunt, Sylvia. Only Eli James, as neurotic comic book artist Stuart, comes from New York, and he's the lone man in the cast.

The part of Sylvia presented Jacobson with a tall order: Her character has hooks for hands. Jacobson enlisted the aid of a therapist who works with amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to help her master such tasks as picking up paper; the thinner the object, the harder it is to manipulate, she says.

The role's psychological demands have been at least as taxing. When she began reading the script, Jacobson thought it was a "therapy play" -- as in therapy for the playwright. But by the time she reached the end, she knew it was something deeper. It wasn't until the second week of rehearsals, however, when she began having nightmares, that she realized how much deeper.

"I had this dream that I was pinning this little blond girl, 9 or 10 [years old]," Jacobson says. "Pinning her arms to her side and telling her I was scared of her. She said, 'I'm not scared of you,' and she was sort of making my tongue thick so I couldn't talk. And the person next to me . . . their heart and chest started filling up with dark string. . . . I woke up, and I realized that's what's happening to Sylvia in the play: She's watching the people around her fill up with this darkness."

We mentioned that the play is a comedy, right? Or at least part comedy. It's messy.

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