A small boy sits alone at the edge of a wooden jetty, dropping marbles into the sea. He is counting the splashing sounds the marbles make as they plummet into the waves. We can count them, too: The collision between toy and water makes a crisp, satisfying noise amid the broader susurration of the ocean.
Arriving in the first minute or two of “Forgotten Kingdoms,” this sequence exemplifies the vividness of this distinctive play by Randy Baker, receiving its world premiere from Rorschach Theatre. A tale of a troubled American missionary family and their circle of acquaintances on an isolated Indonesian island, “Forgotten Kingdoms” touches on such themes as culture clash, the legacy of colonialism and competition among religions, but it is far from an issue play. Bold, often poignant and sometimes too leisurely, the work extends an appealingly personal and idiosyncratic vision, rich in telling detail. The title may reference forgetting, but the play often seems as clear and specific as a total-recall memory.
Director Cara Gabriel capitalizes on that specificity in her production, which unfurls on, and around, an evocation of a wooden house built on stilts over the sea. (Debra Kim Sivigny designed the splendid set, as well as the costumes.) This is the home of David Holiday (Sun King Davis), who has moved to Indonesia with wife, Rebecca (Natalie Cutcher), and son Jimmy (Jeremy Gee) in hopes of spreading their Christian faith. His church has attracted congregants, but Rebecca is unhappy and Jimmy is unwell. When the Holidays receive a visit from Yusuf bin Ibrihim (Rizal Iwan), a quiet Muslim whom David has targeted for conversion, the conversation touches on such matters as the characters’ past missteps, Indonesian myth, the nature of truth and the story of Job. Along the way, the household’s uneasy peace veers into crisis.
All of the performers are quite watchable. In the biggest roles, Davis suggests cagey affability, while Iwan — a Jakarta-based Indonesian actor — convincingly exudes a reserved wariness. Also notable is Vishwas (he goes by one name), who is dynamic and engaging in the small role of a police officer. Design elements also are significant players: Sound designer Justin Schmitz contributes the invaluable ocean-wave noises that underscore the scenes. And lighting designer Tyler Dubuc artfully makes late-afternoon daylight fade into dusk and night, until you can see indoor lights gleaming between the boards of the house.
“Forgotten Kingdoms” is a long-aborning project for Baker, who is Rorschach’s co-artistic director: He grew up an American in Asia, hearing stories about his grandparents’ experiences as missionaries in Indonesia. The “Forgotten Kingdoms” script was developed in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as in the United States.
Over the course of its creation, the play acquired an enigmatic ending that some audience members may find frustrating. Others may find that the open-endedness reflects how different cultures, and different people, can gravitate to drastically differing perspectives.
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. rorschachtheatre.com.
Dates: Through May 21.