For years, Kathleen Akerley worked rather happily as a paralegal for a large Washington firm, until the day it upgraded its headquarters. What seemed like improvements — larger offices with dumbwaiters for the partners, marble countertops for the secretaries — deepened the sense of hierarchy in an already stratified organization.
“I became a bad employee, fast,” Akerley says. “I knew the partners had more status, but [in the old office] I liked the sense that we were all people. And it just really went away in this new space.”
The firm and its hierarchy provided a germ of an idea for Akerley’s new play, which she’s directing for her company, Longacre Lea, after a year-long personal hiatus. “Pol Pot & Associates, LLP” is about a group of six former employees from all rungs of a law firm who escape the legal trade to live communally, but suddenly are torn apart by interference from the outside world.
Akerley seeks to explain communities and the way they dehumanize others, as well as the function and dysfunction of a closed system. And to do that, she took a risk in invoking the name of the architect of the Cambodian genocide.
“Pol Pot is the extreme version of something that has smaller, less shocking cousins,” Akerley said. “I’m fascinated by human carelessness with each other. When are people comfortable saying, ‘Who I am is more important than who you are?’ Pol Pot is the end of the spectrum, but I think it’s worth it to ask: ‘Where are your endeavors on this spectrum?’ ”
The communist leader’s name is cited for issues weightier than just office design, and Akerley does not take the Cambodian atrocities lightly. After the protagonists’ idyllic community is breached, one commune member kills an outsider, and the rest of the residents try to out the murderer while considering the implications for their group.
“When you close a community . . . you do raise the question of being exclusionary and what lengths you’ll go to to protect your community. Which all sounds benign enough; it doesn’t involve millions of people dead. But as soon as someone dies here, the same question gets raised,” Akerley says. “Did you reach a point as a group where one of your individual members thought the group’s health was more important than the life of someone else? And that is Pol Pot.”
But the play’s victim might not be dead after all. There’s a touch of magical realism — Longacre Lea’s favorite device — as people and objects appear out of nowhere and vanish from thin air. One character can see things that others can’t, and another can recite details from conversations that he did not witness.
“There needs to be magic in it so that we understand what an unstoppable source [outsiders] can feel like to people in a closed system,” Akerley says. “The outside world can feel very unsympathetic.”
A lawyer’s initial reaction to the play might not be sympathetic either. But in a town teeming with legal professionals, Akerley stresses that the play is about a specific group of people, not an indictment of the legal craft or its practitioners, among whom are her former co-workers and friends.
“I don’t think the law firm is Cambodia,” Akerley says.
Nevertheless, “I think people should always look seriously at their communities.”
Through Aug. 31 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. $15-$18.