By the end of “Phoebe in Winter,” the stage at Single Carrot Theatre was so trashed that Friday’s opening night audience couldn’t exit the way they had entered, across the set. That’s appropriate: Jen Silverman’s absurdist drama is nonstop rebellion even as it questions where revolutions ever really lead.
Single Carrot is the smart and edgy Baltimore troupe in its ninth year, and the strength of this production — part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival of premieres by female playwrights — is a knack for rough surprises. (“Phoebe” appeared briefly at a New York new-play festival in 2013; this longer run counts as the play’s premiere. Welcome to the long development process and delicate terminology around new plays.)
The setting is an ubertraditional American home — heavy wood furniture in the living room, claw-foot tub in the bathroom, all stretching across Jason Randolph’s wide, detailed set. A maid named Boggett (Lauren A. Saunders) fusses around in an old-fashioned housemaid’s costume while the patriarch, Da Creedy (Richard Goldberg), sits by the fire and puffs on a pipe.
The scene is archetypal as sons Anther (Paul Diem) and Jeremiah (Matthew Shea) come home from what looks like much earlier overseas wars. But Silverman yanks the rug out from under you with the startling entrance of another figure fresh from across the globe: A modern young black woman named Phoebe (Lauren Erica Jackson) in a red T-shirt, toting a rifle, takes the place hostage.
Phoebe’s brothers were killed by Americans, so she’s come to the United States to claim a family here. Logic flies out the window, as the family accedes even when they could resist, but then Silverman is writing in a high absurdist style. On one level, this takes a toll on the show: The characters act like children playing make-believe while conflicts arise around who will claim what role in this new household order.
Who’s going to be “the Boggett,” a.k.a the maid? (Look out, papa.) Who’s going to be “the Liam,” another son come back from the wars? Liam, by the way, is actually dead, which explains the blood glistening all over one side of actor Dustin C.T. Morris’s head. The grim back story on that has plenty of resonance at home.
Silverman is challenging old hierarchies via the household battles, but the immature petulance of the bickering figures can hamstring performers. There aren’t a lot of shades to play, unless you bring more finesse than director Genevieve de Mahy and her actors demonstrate here. It’s a hazard of absurdism, which always works more like a political cartoon than a realistic drama.
Even so, there’s a controlled fury that keeps the show more than alive. What Silverman does is bring the war home: It’s a true battlefield, with factions hunkering down in the kitchen and scurrying around barricades in the living room. The roles corrode behavior; playing house makes its demands, as does playing soldier. So where does it lead when everything gets upended but the roles aren’t redefined, only switched?
The domesticated Phoebe and radicalized Boggett are the strongest figures — they’re both takeover artists — but Silverman’s language is the hardest element of the play to digest, with the broad characters often speaking in cliches and poetic abstractions. Her imagery is another matter, though, and on this count “Phoebe” and Single Carrot march in step. What sticks with you after this housebound, globally minded show is the slow self-destruction of the whole thing.
Phoebe in Winter, by Jen Silverman. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Directed by Genevieve de Mahy. Costumes, Sarah Kendrick; lights, Tabetha White; sound design, Steven Krigel. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 18 at Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St., Baltimore. Tickets $22-$29. Visit www.singlecarrot.com.