How fitting that a play at the Source Festival should speak about sources — the origins of the universe, the wellsprings of personality, the roots of our feelings about other people. Those motifs echo and refract in “Qualities of Starlight,” a well crafted and modestly engaging drama by Gabriel Jason Dean.
One of three full-length plays in this year’s festival — a smorgasbord of new work that runs through July 1 — the nicely acted “Qualities of Starlight” spins a Southern Gothic-tinged tale about a cosmologist named Theo (the excellent Daniel Corey). An up-and-coming visionary who is developing an alternative to the big-bang theory, Theo has hit snags in his effort to start a family. After he and his wife, Polly (Katie Nigsch-Fairfax), decide to adopt, they journey to Appalachia to break the news to his parents, Junior and Rose (Jim Epstein and Vanessa Bradchulis), who will need to submit to an interview with the birth mother. The revelation that Junior and Rose have become meth addicts throws the adoption into question, and as dark childhood memories flood back, Theo realizes that his marriage might be slipping away, too.
Shrewdly directed by Sasha Braett, the play unfurls on an expressive set anchored by a seedy living room awash in junk: dingy blankets, cheap tchotchkes, an empty birdcage, a poster of Elvis. (Robbie Hayes designed the set and Patti Kalil the props.) Amid this clutter, Bradchulis’s nurturing Rose veers periodically into drug-fueled hallucinations that prompt her to stab with scissors at nonexistent lizards. Epstein’s loutish yet likable Junior, initially seen sprawling in an armchair, shirtless, has taken to locking his wife in a bedroom until the meth wears off.
Now reflective and reserved, now wounded, now talking elatedly about scientific notions, Corey’s Theo is the play’s sturdy bedrock. The character of Polly never rings true, and dramatist Dean’s packaging of themes and plotlines sometimes feels too tidy. But, given that festivals are hit-and-miss affairs, “Qualities of Starlight” registers as a welcome find. (An earlier version of the script debuted in Atlanta in 2010.)
Just before the first “Qualities of Starlight” performance Tuesday, the Source Festival, now in its fifth year, kicked off the latest in its “Artistic Blind Date” series, a format that teams up collaborators from different artistic disciplines and gives them free rein to innovate. Like “Qualities of Starlight,” the mysterious movement-theater piece “Shadow-Matter: Exam Log X” dallies with the idea of science. Ushered into the white-walled Source rehearsal hall, audience members find themselves being gently positioned around a white mat by two unspeaking performers, a woman in a lab coat (Dannie Snyder, a filmmaker by background) and a man in bohemian street clothes (Drex, who specializes in object manipulation). As bell and synthesizer sounds intone moodily, and a recorded voice recites excerpts from an arcane scientific logbook, a black cloth floats into the room, writhing and eventually sinking onto the mat. Lifted, the cloth reveals a huddled creature in a black bodysuit (Lisi Stoessel, a designer and puppeteer) who proceeds to dance and wrestle with the man, gracefully twining limbs or shoving and flailing in a battle for control. Gradually it becomes obvious that Stoessel represents a strange particle or energy, and that the other two characters are scientific researchers who are slowly — eerily — being sucked into the uncanny element’s orbit. About 25 minutes long, “Shadow-Matter” is agreeably enigmatic, a tantalizing bit of choreographed sci-fi.
The festival’s other offerings include Norman Allen’s “The House Halfway” and Gregory Moss’s “The Uses of Enchantment,” both full-length works. Also on the roster are two more “blind date” productions and 18 10-minute plays that will be performed in clusters. Giving a high-concept spin to the lineup, the festival producers have stated that each production relates in some way to one of three themes: “Redeeming Demons,” “Rites of Passage” or “Ethereal Encounters.” Tuesday’s shows (which will be performed again) fell under the “Redeeming Demons” banner. Catching sight of the spookily fluttering “Shadow-Matter” cloth or of Bradchulis’s assaults on invisible lizards, you wouldn’t have quibbled with the categorization.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Through July 1 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. 866-811-4111 or www.sourcefestival.org.