Books have become riddles to Eurydice, who once was an avid reader. Newly arrived in the unnerving funhouse-mirror realm that is the Underworld, she has lost her memory, as well as her ability to recognize objects and decipher text. Encountering a “Collected Works of Shakespeare,” she reacts with bafflement. She drops the volume, then abruptly kneels next to it to scrutinize it at closer range. When the book still proves enigmatic, she slams the cover closed, then stands and backs away, berating the thing. She knows that she once understood this genre of mysterious object, and her current confusion is charged with frustration and fear.
Portraying a woman disoriented by love, loss and grief, the fine actress Emily Kester anchors, and lends aching poignancy to, NextStop Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice.” Not that her performance is the only virtue of director Jay D. Brock’s graceful staging, which also boasts some deft supporting actors, a fluid pace and a sure grasp of the balance between lyrical sadness and knife-edged whimsy that characterizes this 2003 play.
Riffing on Greek mythology, “Eurydice” follows its title character on a startling and sometimes funny cosmic journey. When she dies, shortly after her marriage to the musician Orpheus (Kiernan McGowan), Eurydice finds herself in a disconcertingly kooky Hades, which is ruled by a bratty, tricycle-riding Lord of the Underworld (Alex Zavistovich). She finds comfort in a renewed acquaintance with her dead father (Michael Kramer), until Orpheus arrives to rescue her, offering a fresh ordeal of choice and change.
McGowan hits just the right notes with his depiction of an unworldly, distracted and slightly childlike Orpheus, while Kramer’s portrait of the vulnerable, quietly yearning Father makes the play’s family-reunification scenes hugely affecting. Skulking around with well-crafted shifty, lumbering movement, Tamieka Chavis, Charlene V. Smith and Briana Manente do a good job conjuring the shrill talking Stones, resident curmudgeons of the infernal regions. (The lighting design by Catherine Girardi floods the Stones in blue tones, giving them a suitably eerie air.)
Framing a deep oval pool, the purple-blue slabs and cubes of JD Madsen’s set suggest corroding heaps of shipwrecked cargo — an apt-enough visual correlative for the Underworld, especially considering all of the resonant water imagery in the play. (Sound designer Kenny Neal’s contributions include the chimes and whirring-motor noises of the “raining elevator” Ruhl invented to help ferry dead souls to the afterlife, but there are some physical raindrops, too.) Kristina Martin devised the costumes, which add hints of nostalgia and dream logic.
Even after leaving the production, theatergoers may find themselves haunted by the image of Eurydice, in a bright red dress, balancing a translucent umbrella upside down in the pool. The umbrella floats there for a moment, like a boat on the river Styx.
NextStop Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. 866-811-4111. nextstoptheatre.org.
Dates: Through Nov. 20.