Kids say the darndest things — especially when they’re precocious 10-year-olds narrating the misdeeds of an eerily dysfunctional household. Canadian playwright Morris Panych features one child’s quirky perspectives in “Girl in the Goldfish Bowl,” an engrossing tragicomedy about lost innocence making its American premiere at Alexandria’s MetroStage.
The setting is a coastal U.S. town in 1962. The prospect of nuclear war hangs over the country as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, while inside one residence, an equally sobering predicament is brewing.
The wife is about to flee her worthless, drug-addicted husband, taking with her any sense of stability. Their daughter’s goldfish also has just died, a traumatic event in the eyes of the child who ascribes supernatural powers to her pet. And a disoriented stranger has just washed up on shore and is invited in. Is he the reincarnated goldfish who could keep her family together? Or perhaps an escapee from a mental institution?
Panych, author of the 1995 play “Vigil,” favors existential themes and an absurdist style. “Goldfish Bowl” fits that mold as a memory play that reflects on certain calamitous events from a child’s viewpoint. The playwright dispenses measured doses of good, bad and ugly to unsuspecting auds as he introduces mature topics to the story.
Director Gregg Henry has assembled a polished ensemble of Washington theater veterans and gives them free rein. They are headed by Susan Lynskey, an adult who clearly revels in her role as the impish Iris. Lynskey offers an endearing mix of wide-eyed wonderment tinged with remorse as the youngster innocently revealing “the last days of my childhood.”
Like any 10-year-old, she’s a blizzard of movement climbing on furniture, darting under tables and furtively hiding on stairs. “You’re not very good at being a human being, but nobody else is, either,” she says insightfully to one character, aptly summarizing both the play and her commanding role in it.
Panych has sketched the other characters in varying degrees of befuddlement and angst as he lays out his essentially dark tale, deftly easing the load with cuteness, wackiness and unpredictability.
As the father, Bobby Smith is blithely oblivious to the vacuum he has created with his wasted life of neediness and unfulfilled promise. Kathleen Coons sharply portrays the frustrated wife who continually evades reality with temporary kitchen duties while dreaming of a more permanent solution. Michael Russotto triggers the action nicely as the amiably confused but fretful visitor, uncertain about his responsibilities as the daughter’s reincarnated fish. Susan Ross capitalizes on a one-dimensional part as a sleazy boarder.
It all makes for an intriguing production that keeps audiences on edge as it tinkers with their emotions and rolls to an unsettling conclusion.