Scribes like Christopher Wall can be their own worst enemy, and directors do them no service by indulging their dramaturgical whims. Despite having been regionally workshopped, “Dreams of the Washer King” has no coherent dramatic identity. The play shows originality, both in its treatment of how children become victimized by their parents’ problems and in its attempt to work in multiple time frames. But the form is all over the map — a ghost story grafted onto a coming-of-age play and folded into a dysfunctional family drama — and under Giovanna Sardelli’s permissive helming looks more like a wannabe screenplay.
Wall has a good story to tell, of two unhappy people who can’t deal with the losses they’ve endured and pass on the burden of misery to their children.
Claire (Carla Harting) secretly welcomes ghostly visitations from her late husband, who died in a stupid accident of his own making. Harting does her best to make her bizarre behavior seem like natural grief, but for all Claire’s denials (“I don’t believe we’re being watched over or none of that”), she unconsciously encourages her sensitive 15-year-old son, Ryan (Ben Hollandsworth), to share the haunting.
Wade (Stevie Ray Dallimore), their unstable new neighbor in this unnamed rural town, can’t stop brooding about the wife who left him — presumably for the mean streak of violence that makes him so scary. (Too scary, in Dallimore’s perf.) And while Wade insists that he’s got his temper in control, he has a nasty habit of confusing his 16-year-old daughter, Elsie (Reyna de Courcy), with the wife who still haunts him.
Although the kids are the most stable people in this drama, the mental health of these emotionally abandoned waifs is strictly relative. Elsie claims to be the pen-pal savior of other neglected girls, and in de Courcy’s spooky (too spooky) perf, it’s hard to distinguish girlish fantasy from pathology.
Ryan’s compulsive habit of recording his thoughts on a vintage two-reel tapedeck, along with his antisocial tendency to hang out in an overgrown field of abandoned washers and driers, is the kind of behavior that also smacks of mental instability. But Hollingsworth plays the kid with a sweet natural quality that undercuts the creepiness.
The difficulty of staging the play comes from its ambition to tell its story in a continuing spooling loop of multiple timelines. The playwright seems not to want us to be able to distinguish between past and future action, with the result that no scene is allowed to take place in time present.
Helmer Sardelli indulges the scribe by following his dictatorial stage directions and creating a mish-mash. Scenically, everything’s onstage at once, including the kitchen sink — and all those washers and driers — with lighting and sound effects contributing to the mush.
This creates a nightmare for the actors, forced to play scenes with foreknowledge of what’s going to happen next. Or without acknowledging what has already happened in the past.
And let’s not even discuss what the audience is left to make of all this — other than the dark suspicion that nobody involved in this show particularly cares what the poor audience thinks.