Washington Stage Guild has been one of the mainstays of the Washington, DC theatre community for nearly 30 years, yet its productions often fly under the radar when compared to such known quantities as Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Yet, I must say that its current production, the Washington, DC premiere of Karoline Leach's period drama Tryst, offers one of the finest current, local examples of the magic that can happen when a daring company takes a compelling story and brings it to life with exquisite acting and solid and highly creative production elements. Put succinctly, this production should be seen.
First premiering in London in 1997 under the name The Mysterious Mr. Love, Tryst enjoyed a run Off-Broadway in 2006 and another production at New York's Irish Rep in 2011 as well as many other successful presentations across the country. It's rather easy to see why this play has attracted this kind of attention. Based on a true story from the early 1900s, it focuses on two individuals - the rather plain and unconfident Adelaide Pinchin (Emily Townley) who works at a local shop making hats, and the suave and persistent con George Love (Felipe Cabezas). Love has made a career of swindling certain kinds of women to 'marry' him and then taking off with their valuables and savings. Adelaide becomes his next target when he first sees her in the hat shop. At first, the wooing all goes according to George's plan as it has so many times before, but Adelaide reveals some truths about herself that leaves the audience guessing as to whether the game that we think is being played is really as it initially seems, and whether Adelaide and George's initially toxic relationship will ultimately turn around for the better. The play simultaneously explores several themes prevalent in many works of classic and modern theatre - the nature of love romance and relationship, truth vs. fiction, the differences between how we perceive ourselves and how others might perceive us, and whether what's expected is always what's real. However, it does so in a way that's largely unexpected.
Leach's script is decidedly simple at first glance, but as the onion is peeled back so to speak, the hidden complexities are revealed one by one. Townley and Cabezas, under the solid direction of Kasi Campbell, prove their agile acting ability as they take on this powerful script. As individuals they shine, but together they are magic.
Townley, who should be commended for her consistent and impeccable accent, is initially the definition of heartbreaking in her portrayal of Adelaide. Her vocal and physical mannerisms embody the self-conscious young woman to a tee. As we learn more about Adelaide and how her past has shaped who's she become, we also see Townley add more dimensions to her character. Her emotional range is astounding and she's quite adept at keeping all of the emotions under control so the admittedly uncomfortable scenes never become too melodramatic. Her natural and unflinchingly honest performance is ultimately one of the main reasons this production works so well.
Cabezas has a less richly drawn character to portray than Townley, but he excels at playing George, the suave con who never likes to reveal his hand too much. Although his line delivery when speaking to the audience is slightly stilted and too rehearsed sounding for my taste in the initial moments of the play - although the rehearsed part may fit well with portraying a character who's played the same swindling game more than once - he more than makes up for this in every other scene. Like Townley, he thankfully steers clear of heavy-handed melodramatic acting and is ultimately very believable as a person who may not be what he seems at every moment in time. His performance allows the audience to keep on guessing as to what he will do next, which is crucial for this play to work.
The Guild's production ultimately allows the story to be the focus and wisely the creative team has chosen to keep its production elements to a minimum. This isn't to say, however, that there's been no thought put into the sets, lighting, sound, and costumes. That's definitely not the case. Jie Yu's abstract set, comprised mostly of pictures frames of various sizes, plays up the themes of perceptions and reality vs. fantasy and is at the same time highly creative. The costumes (Kirk Kristoblas) are period appropriate and highlight things we need to know about George and Adelaide, including how they reflect themselves through fashion (who they are, who they think they are, and who they want to be), and their socio-economic status (whether real or desired). Marianne Meadows' lighting and Thomas Sowers' sound designs are also solid and do not detract focus from the other elements of the production.