Civilization crumbled to bits in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” the Pulitzer finalist about two struggling couples. Suburban routine gave way to alarmingly primitive impulses that Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company played last season with howl-at-the-sky abandon.
“Detroit’s” back-to-nature companion piece “Cherokee” upends things more pensively, even perplexingly. Again, we track two couples losing their fundamental connections to society. This time it’s a comfortable foursome from Houston getting away from it all on Native American land in North Carolina, grinning middle-class people overdressed for “roughing it” in high-end gear from REI.
But where “Detroit” blew up with a force you couldn’t ignore, the mysterious “Cherokee” is an understated invitation you can take or leave. The conundrum that D’Amour cooks up is tantalizing, and it’s staged with woodsy serenity at Woolly by “Detroit” director John Vreeke. But the coolly written play is so coy that key details seem to evaporate before you can take them in.
Then again, disappearance is what it’s all about. The Houston foursome is white couple John (Paul Morella) and Janine (Jennifer Mendenhall), and black couple Mike (Thomas W. Jones II) and Traci (Erica Chamblee).
John is a tightly wound oil exec. Mike is his longtime buddy. John and Janine have children; the children stayed home. Mike and Traci are trying to conceive; amusingly, we hear them at it in the tent.
And then Mike, the one most unnerved by every chirp and snapped twig in the woods, vanishes. The search is on, kind of, and if you want to nitpick with the script, the group’s lack of urgency over this missing person is one place you could start. Helping, sort of, is Josh (Jason Grasl), a member of the Cherokee tribe that runs the big local casino and that offers outdoor performances of a historical drama. (“Unto These Hills” is the show staged during the warm months in the real Cherokee, N.C., where there’s also a Harrah’s casino.)
The easygoing production attractively seduces you toward a wilderness state of mind. Daniel Ettinger’s set features stylized woods that soar to the highest reaches of Woolly’s ample stage, with shadowy nighttime lighting by Colin K. Bills and outdoorsy sound from Palmer Hefferan. The acting in this environment is appropriately wide-eyed and mystical as nature infects these suburbanites with such rapture that they seriously talk about never going back.
Morella and Mendenhall nicely capture the intoxication of a chuck-it-all freedom (an idea that was chug-a-lugged in “Detroit”) as John and Janine reconnect with what they think are their purer selves. The other characters are more complicated, and the performances are necessarily slippery. Chamblee remains a kindly blank slate as Traci, who isn’t as traumatized by the calamity of Mike’s disappearance as we might expect. Jones’s normal-guy Mike and Grasl’s sage Josh are also deliberately blurry, though for different reasons — and it would spoil the twists in the plot to say why.
It isn’t giving away too much to reveal the hot-button issue pushed by D’Amour’s first act cliffhanger. It’s identity, with these varied characters wrestling with all kinds of history — personal, cultural, national. Setting the play in a place like Cherokee, a tourist trap built on the 19th-century Trail of Tears, coaxes you to try to connect these dots, especially as “code switching,” or toggling between linguistic styles, steps forward as a theme.
“Reality is not a fixed state,” one character insists as the increasingly peculiar group argues whether they can live together in this potential utopia, and as they bicker about who has been true or false to whom.
Substantial as the themes are, they’re generating an oddly light puzzle of a play. D’Amour was better known as an experimentalist before “Detroit” brought her mainstream acclaim, and “Cherokee” is in a quirkier key. The drama murmurs provocative questions but spins away from clear answers in its nowhere world.
The Woolly production features what looks like live action projections of the characters in the mountains and in the food halls, and their bodies slowly fade and dissolve on the screen. At first the video seems like a distraction, but it turns out to be awfully close to the heart of the play. There’s a revolution going on; it’s just low-key and naggingly enigmatic — like the faces on the screen, a little too easily wiped away.
By Lisa D’Amour. Directed by John Vreeke. Costumes, Kelsey Hunt; projections engineer, Aaron Fisher; fight choreographer, Joe Isenberg. About 2 hours and 10 minutes. Through March 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$88, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net