Playwright Jason Grote (“1001”) has quickly gained a reputation for inventive scripts that examine contemporary themes within contexts pulled from literature, embellishing them with seamless jumps between reality and fantasy. In “Maria/Stuart,” premiering at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, a modern family is inflicted with animosities loosely borrowed from England’s Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, as depicted in German author Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play, “Mary Stuart.”
Grote’s dramedy aims to elicit empathy for pitiable characters within an extravagant ghost story filled with heavy doses of lunacy. While he doesn’t entirely pull it off, the provocative play offers much to admire, thanks in large part to Woolly’s polished production and the astute and sensitive performances of a veteran ensemble.
In the opening scene, young, intellectual comicbook illustrator Stuart (Eli James) is talking on the phone about his latest project while rooting through a refrigerator in one of two side-by-side suburban kitchens that comprise James Kronzer’s imaginative set, each with cascading cabinets that reach for the rafters. He is interrupted by a German-spouting, soda-slurping apparition — his cousin Hannah (Megan Grady), the very person with whom he is speaking.
The shape-shifting visitor reappears throughout the play to gradually expose sins committed within this monumentally dysfunctional clan ruled by two competing sisters. The impertinent vision commands the identities of various family members and even the fax machine to deliver quirky messages about the family’s ugly secret.
And what a family it is. There’s caustic grandmother Ruthie (Sarah Marshall), around whose birthday the group is preparing to assemble; the two angry, divorced daughters, Lizzie (Emily Townley) and Marnie (Amy McWilliams), whose rivalry stokes the plot; and nutty Aunt Sylvia (Naomi Jacobson), who incessantly devours cheese puffs despite the two hooks that have replaced her hands, the result of a botched suicide attempt. Then, of course, there’s artist Stuart, who lusts after his comely cousin.
The nonstop antics and sordid doings, which include regular trashing of the kitchens by the inconsiderate ghoul, gussy up what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian family saga by today’s TV standards. Yet each of Grote’s characters is richly drawn, and director Pam MacKinnon gives free rein to the writer’s scene-altering techniques, building the requisite tension en route to the play’s climax. The impact is enhanced by the confinement of cast and apparitions within the two spaces.
Colin K. Bills’ creepy lighting and Matthew M. Nielson’s artful blend of music and sound provide the perfect luster for this wacky tale.