The smile freezes, then falters and finally vanishes altogether. That sequence of expressions — on the face of actress Felicia Curry — ushers in the bleaker portion of "Lela & Co.," the Factory 449 production of Cordelia Lynn's play. After her smile ebbs, the title character transforms further: The buoyant girl, who brims with excitement as she describes an ornately frosted birthday cake, becomes a haggard, shellshocked victim of sex trafficking and war.
Premiered in Britain in 2015, Lynn's two-hander is writerly, unflinching and often grim. In director Rick Hammerly's intense production at the Anacostia Arts Center, designer Greg Stevens's set harmonizes with the tone: Bare wire mattress springs loom around the performance area, where some cinder blocks also stand sentry.
An optimistic figure in a flowery frock, Curry's Lela initially seems at odds with this milieu. Addressing us directly, she recalls her childhood in an unnamed country, where her family tended toward quirkiness. (At one point, her grandmother was buried in vegetable peelings for days, and no one noticed.)
As Lela speaks, her domineering father occasionally strides into view to contradict her. Later, her sleazy brother-in-law and calculating husband make comparable cameos to repress and edit her narrative. (It's after one of these rebukes that her smile fades.) All of the play's male figures are channeled by Renaldo McClinton, whose characterizations are distinctive and robust, if less mesmerizing than Curry's heart-rending Lela.
Conceived and developed with Desara Bosnja and 1989 Productions, "Lela & Co." is based on a true story, and its descriptions can be harrowing. Locked in a room with a mattress, as the sounds of civil war erupt outside, Lela cleans frantically, as a coping mechanism, when she isn't enduring routine rape. (Ultimately, the play delivers a relatively upbeat ending.)
The details are less chilling in Ally Theatre Company's world premiere "Clover," but this play, too, focuses on a vulnerable woman, whose story is in danger of suppression at the hands of the powerful. Written by Laura Rocklyn and Ty Hallmark, "Clover" is an informative and bustling but formally stodgy bio-drama about Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams, the wife of Henry Adams, who omitted any direct mention of her in his landmark autobiography, "The Education of Henry Adams."
Director Angela Kay Pirko keeps the scenes brisk as the play, at Caos on F, recounts Clover's career as a society hostess in Washington; the solace she found in photography; and her eventual suicide. In the title role, Rocklyn suggests Clover's intelligence, wit, nagging depression and frustration with life as a public figure. Nick DePinto sinks himself deeply into his role as a workaholic Henry Adams, while the ensemble dutifully helps evoke Gilded Age whirl.
You can see why the show's creators might have wanted to shake up the staid storytelling, but the appearances by the spectral Grief (Megan Khaziran) just feel heavy-handed. (The cloaked figure resembles the Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorial to Clover Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery.) Set designer Audrey Bodek's stylized immersive set — peppered with old photographs and empty picture frames — is a more eloquent tribute to courage and loss.
Lela & Co., by Cordelia Lynn, conceived and developed with Desara Bosnja and 1989 Productions. Directed by Rick Hammerly; lighting design, William D'Eugenio; sound, Tosin Olufalabi; costumes, Scott L. Hammar; movement, Jenny Male. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $22. Through Oct. 1 at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd. SE. 202-355-9449. factory449.org. For tickets: elaandco.brownpapertickets.com. Clover, by Laura Rocklyn and Ty Hallmark. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko; lighting design, E-hui Woo; sound, Hope Villanueva; costumes, Dominique Gaddy; props, Audrey Bodek; choreography, Angelisa Gillyard; original music, Katie Chambers and Ariel Bliss. With Tamieka Chavis, Alani Kravitz, Ben Lauer, Stephanie Svec and Reginald Richard. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $25. Through Oct. 28 at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. allytheatrecompany.com.