In Liz Maestri’s “Inheritance Canyon” on Capitol Hill, a jolly band of buddies slowly realize they’re trapped in some kind of mysterious government experiment. Meanwhile in Annapolis, the women in Patricia Henley’s grim slice-of-life “If I Hold My Tongue” struggle with addiction and sexual abuse.
These contrasting shows are both part of the ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and you can see how much of the literal and figurative map is covered by this sprawling event. (Openings this week go as far north as Baltimore and as far west as Reston.) The productions occupy small black-box spaces, with “Inheritance Canyon” at Taffety Punk’s Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and “If I Hold My Tongue” in the funky, high-ceilinged Compass Rose Theatre.
But the writers’ approaches and results couldn’t be more different. Henley’s earnest drama feels starkly reported, while Maestri’s sprightly fantasy has more than a touch of “Scooby-Doo.”
Henley’s drama is the less polished — it’s getting just two weekends of performances in Annapolis as part of a bigger Compass Rose festival this month. Henley mainly writes novels, poems and short stories; the play is drawn from interviews she conducted with women in a Fells Point halfway house several years ago.
Their situations are indisputably ghastly. In frankly foulmouthed language, they talk about drugs and sex, and in director Lucinda Merry-Browne’s energetically acted production (which occasionally threatens to overwhelm the cozy theater), they’re intensely lonely and frightened. Henley’s impulse to report truthfully about her subject battles with a poetic instinct as the women bicker, commiserate and yearn for better things.
There’s a mystery about a vanished girl and her mother’s search, and about a pair of kids’ shoes that gets swiped and leads to a war between a jumpy white woman (an edgy Ali Evarts) and a hot-tempered pregnant black woman (Ayune’ Boone). The plot points are as labored as much of the acting, even if some of the voices Henley channels ring pitifully true.
“Inheritance Canyon” has more polish but less heft. It’s a companion piece to Maestri’s “Owl Moon,” which Taffety Punk staged a couple of seasons ago, and what went then goes now: You’ll either find Maestri’s quick, flip tone refreshing, or you’ll go a little bonkers trying to find the protein in this low-cal shake.
It starts with pals Shell, Gary and Sal camping out and sky-watching. There’s a flash, and then plenty of weirdness. Three examples:
●A possibly mad scientist named Dr. Kroger monitors the youngsters, and Dan Crane plays the humorless doctor with a German accent and oddball attention to the high-security, low-budget doors to his laboratory.
●Gary, played by James Flanagan with the same goofy half-smile last seen on Mike Myers in “Wayne’s World,” impersonates Olivia Newton-John so he’ll be noticed by Hollywood scouts — even up in this fenced-off western wilderness that seems to have become a federal prison.
●Shell, an aspiring scientist, splits into two beings played by the well-matched Esther Williamson and Gwen Grastorf.
It all moves fast and looks sorta fun, and Lise Bruneau directs it with an appreciation for Maestri’s eccentrics. The show is easy to watch, and the actors are all solid. Flanagan gets lots of laughs as the quirky Gary, and Teresa Castracane finds the poignant revelations in the flinty Sal.
The intrigue doesn’t add up or pay off, though, so the play’s just an escapist lark. That “Scooby-Doo” comparison doesn’t come out of the blue: It’s so hardwired into Maestri’s tone that Dr. Kroger even rails at the youngsters as “meddling meddlers.” Jinkies!