Dreams of the Washer King
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
June 10, 2010
Christopher Wall's Dreams of the Washer King is a play about people weighed down by the ghosts of their past. Ryan is a snarky, science fiction-obsessed 15-year-old who spends his days trying to record evidence of his father's ghost on tape. Meanwhile his mother Claire, a spacey middle-aged bank teller, can't escape the spectral presence of her late husband, who moved them out to the country to escape the pressures of city life and then died in a tragic accident. When the enigmatic Wade and his teenage daughter Elsie move into town, they latch onto Ryan and Claire, sensing a mutual longing for connection. From here the play sets off as a dual romantic comedy as both couples begin to find in each other the possibility of forward momentum. Their pasts creep in, though, and pull all four of them down toward a tragic and inevitable conclusion.
The play's set is dominated by its central metaphor: a landscape of dilapidated washing machines, scattered across an overgrown field. Ryan attributes them to a local eccentric old appliance repairman—the titular Washer King—who planned his escape from their small town by acquiring old washing machines to fix, paint bright colors, and market in Germany as "vintage pieces." Instead, though, his wife left him to languish in obscurity and the washing machines sit there as rusty totems to thwarted ambitions and the overwhelming power of inertia. To Ryan, however, the machines—filled with pilfered beers, maps, and camping supplies—symbolize the possibility of freedom, evoking the spaceships of his beloved Asimov and Clarke books, waiting to take him to distant worlds far from his own. The furniture for the interiors of both houses is mixed throughout the old appliances, creating a sort of degraded box set. By mapping all of the play's physical spaces onto each other, designer David Newell has created an effective and functional physical metaphor for the temporal collapse of this world under the weight of its own memories.
Director Giovanna Sardelli makes full use of this space, navigating the play's cinematic leaps in time and location with relative ease. As the action spirals towards the moment of crisis, time breaks down and moments from the past, present, and future play out simultaneously. While the action remains commendably clear at these more expressionistic moments, Sardelli's direction unfortunately seems a bit less confident. She holds very literally to Wall's rigorously prescriptive stage directions and the result can feel stiff at times.
This slight inconsistency is forgivable, though, because of the universally strong performances that keep the show rooted throughout. Ben Hollandsworth and Reyna de Courcy bring a charming, earnest naivete to Ryan and Elsie that makes their scenes together in the field some of the play's most enjoyable. Carla Harting's heartbreaking portrayal of Claire is deeply affecting, and serves to ground the play's dramaturgical flights of fancy in a nuanced emotional realism that keeps it honest. Stevie Ray Dallimore rounds out the cast, instilling Wade with an unsettling intensity.
Ultimately, Dreams of the Washer King is a haunting exploration of time and memory that will remain with you for some time. As an emerging playwright, Christopher Wall has an intriguing sense of poetry and narrative, and is well worth keeping an eye on.