Certainly, many plays have examined questions of mortality. After all, it’s a complex issue that everyone can appreciate and can be treated through a psychological or sociological lens, or both. Few, however, have examined it in the way Bryony Lavery does in her newest work, Dirt, which is currently receiving a world premiere at Studio Theatre as part of its relatively new “Studio Lab” initiative.
Focusing on the death of one individual (Harper, played by the wonderful Holly Twyford), Lavery examines the questions that emerge when Harper’s boyfriend, mother, and acquaintances and even Harper herself begin to consider how she died, what will become of her, and what her death signifies in the philosophical and actual sense. What could have been a ‘what happened/who did it?’ mystery instead is a social commentary on what it means to human, what it means to live, what it means to die, what happens to the messes we leave after we pass, and what messes are created when death occurs.
Because multiple questions and themes are explored in this admittedly conceptual work, it’s important for Lavery to ground her examination of those interconnected ideas by focusing on a single, initially simple event and exploring it from multiple angles. She largely accomplishes this by having each (mostly) fully-fleshed character break the fourth wall and explains their thoughts on mortality, life, and loss given this event – even Harper after she passes. This device can get a bit tiresome in the unnecessarily long and repetitive play, but because Lavery’s set of characters is so diverse and are so well acted by the small cast of five, one can largely revel in the theatricality of it all.
All five members of the cast display exemplary acting skills, but two performances stand out. Twyford, who can seemingly do no wrong on any DC stage no matter the role, is both detached and engaged as the wonderfully imperfect yet witty and intellectual, Harper. Her nuanced portrayal of someone grappling with unexpected events and heavy questions about humanity and relationships before and after death is something to be seen. Without a single movement (particularly in the beginning of Act II) she conveys more intense emotion than most actors can do with a powerful monologue. With Ms. Twyford, words aren’t needed to communicate feelings, but she certainly uses every word the playwright has given her to full advantage.
Studio Theatre-newcomer Natalia Payne portrays self-important, quirky waitress/actress Elle, one of the last people to see Harper before she dies. Confident, charismatic, and energetic, Payne excels with internalizing the deeper questions her character has to ponder in Act II, but also shows that she is more than capable of naturally delivering witty ‘one-liners’ in Act I. She’s a strong actress and I look forward to seeing what she does in the future.
The other three cast members also have moments to shine in the spotlight. Matthew Montelongo is quite believable as Harper’s tightly-wound boyfriend, Matt. The range of emotion he effectively displays is quite exceptional with the best moment coming when he finally comes to terms with Harper’s death in his own way. His quiet and subtle acting in this particular moment is certainly appreciated. Carolyn Mignini (who portrays Harper’s professor mother, May) and Ro Boddie (Guy, an acquaintance of Elle’s) have less to do than the others, but make the most of their small moments onstage. Mignini’s transformation from the cold, scientific professor to grieving mother is noteworthy in that she still stays true to May’s inner need to intellectualize everything while still grieving over her daughter. Boddie’s natural and grounded acting complements Payne’s quite well and they have a nice chemistry in their scenes.