You’d think that a play centered on the world of Metro would have all the dramatic trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy, or perhaps a cutting French satire — riffs on delayed trains and the frustrations of single-tracking, macabre jokes about track fires and derailments.
But “Use All Available Doors,” which opened Friday at the Dupont Underground subterranean arts space, takes a more nuanced approach. The interior of a rickety old Metro train serves as the backdrop to a varied display of human emotions — where people fall in and out of love, commit random acts of kindness and spark bizarre altercations. Riders grapple with their angst over American politics and reckon with their own loneliness or existential quandaries.
In other words, this isn’t just a play about Red Line delays.
“This play takes something that you do every day — riding the Metro — and it makes it special,” said Toni Rae Salmi, the show’s director. “It makes it art.”
The play, which Salmi considers “a love letter to D.C.,” is put on by Pinky Swear Productions and funded by a grant from CulturalDC’s Performing Arts Program. The production continues through May 6.
The entire two-hour show takes place during a dramatized trip from one end of the Red Line to the other, where a self-contained vignette unfolds between each station. The main character is Sherry, the train’s operator, who loves to sing old gospel songs from the 1920s and lovingly calls her soon-to-be-retired train an “old-timer.”
As she drives the train, Sherry reflects on the recent death of her mother and struggles to figure out what to say in the eulogy at the funeral. The character’s inner musings and soliloquies weave in and out as other characters board and disembark at each Red Line stop. Unexpected events occur on each step of the trip.
“Being in a train car, for me, in many ways feels like being suspended in time and space. You can’t escape the journey or affect the speed, and you can’t escape the people you’re with,” said playwright Brittany Alyse Willis , who wrote the first draft of the script two years ago.
“As a setting, a train car provides so much material for putting very disparate people in the same place,” Willis said.
The production takes place on real underground train infrastructure, the tracks that were shuttered in the 1960s with the end of D.C.’s streetcar. Now, the tracks and the tunnel system underneath Dupont Circle serve as an avant-garde event venue and performing arts space.
The venue was perfect for “Use All Available Doors.” The cool, quiet aura of the subterranean environment intensifies the sensation that you’re truly inside a Metro station watching people get on and off a train.
“We had joked about producing it in Dupont Underground,” never thinking it would actually happen, Willis said. When the production company learned that the Dupont Underground organizers were seeking innovative ways to use the space, “we jumped on it as quickly as we could.”
The show’s set designer and Salmi’s husband, Mike Salmi, re-created the interior of a Red Line train by measuring the exact dimensions and spacing of the seats inside a real Metro car.
Metro officials even donated several old cushions from a retired 4000-series rail car, though there was one problem. The cushions were too clean, clashing with the grittier feel he was going for.
“They looked so new, we had to give it a touch-up,” Mike Salmi said.
He used other visual elements to create the most realistic set possible. There are dusty hexagonal tiles on the platform and dim circular white lights that pulse and glow as the train approaches. Much of the stage is covered by musty-looking brown carpet.
“That’s some of the most cheap carpet I could find, like you would use in an R.V.,” Mike Salmi said. “That’s the look of an old Metro train.”
Lady Davonne, a 35-year-old actress from Oxon Hill, Md., plays the role of Sherry, the grieving train operator. When she found out she’d gotten the lead role, she sought out a friend who works as a Metro train operator. Davonne peppered her with questions: What do you think about while you’re driving? Where are you looking? How does your voice sound when you make your station announcements?
But perhaps the biggest facet of realism comes from the script itself.
Willis, the playwright, crowdsourced anecdotes from real Metro riders, who recounted some of the bizarre and unexpected things they had witnessed or experienced during their daily commutes.
In one scene of the play, a man approaches a stranger sitting on the train, kneels in front of her and gently removes her flip-flops, without saying a word. He pulls out a package of wet wipes and uses them to softly clean her feet as she looks on in gratitude and wonder.
A Metro rider swore to Willis that this was a true story they had witnessed during a ride.
There are other moments that will resonate with daily commuters. The actors engage in an “apology dance,” a highly choreographed tangle of bodies saying “sorry” as they push past one another to get on and off the train.
The train comes to a halt between two stations, and the operator announces that they will be holding while they wait for another train to leave the platform. The frustrations of a momentary delay begin to ignite, and the scene devolves into a “Lord of the Flies”-esque battle over hoarded crackers.
There’s even a not-so-subtle dig at reporters who cover Metro, one of whom harangues a passenger with an aggressive stream of questions while recording a Facebook video.
“Do you hate the Red Line?” he demands, as the passenger demurs and says they actually like riding Metro. “Would you say the Red Line is cursed? Or is it the pinnacle of human failure?”
But some of Willis’s favorite scenes have to do with love and longing — moments when characters eye each other from opposite sides of the aisle and make a connection or demonstrate empathy.
Those scenes are borne of Willis’s own memories, when the playwright used to commute on the Red Line five or six days a week and, as a people watcher, spent the time sizing up fellow passengers and trying to imagine their lives outside of the train.
“Riding the train every day, I was just falling in love with people all the time, as cheesy as that sounds,” Willis said. “I was falling in love with the people of D.C., which probably says more about me than it does about them.”