"The mind's a restless thing when you start something, trying to figure out how it'll end," at least, so says Wade (Stevie Ray Dallimore), but it's the opposite that holds back Christopher Wall's otherwise excellent play, Dreams of the Washer King. In this first scene, Wall's wisely used the narrative of the excitably young Ryan (Ben Hollandsworth)--an Asimov fan who is saturated with a belief soiled by desperation--to establish a foreboding, sweat-soaked atmosphere, one in which Ryan's lonely single mother, Claire (Carla Harting), meets the wolfish Wade with equal parts tension and lust. It's hard to tell which direction the play's going . . . until Wade leaves, a bit of foreshadow clunking off his tongue: "You got a nice laugh. I didn't remember that."
The rest of the play makes for a well-done ghost story, one that's grounded in the sweet realism of things like Stand By Me. But by pulling the curtain back this early--by knowing exactly how it will end--Wall limits the impact of his play. For the first act, it's fine: memories are especially haunting, and it's neat to realize that a lazy, beer-drinking afternoon between Elsie (Reyna de Courcy) and Ryan is in the past, whereas in the present, a forlorn Wade abruptly finds himself talking to an empty wall, folding laundry not at home, but in a prison. But at times, Dreams of the Washer King feels like watching The Sixth Sense a third time: having already enjoyed the story and the tricks, there is now only the confidence of its director--in this case, the terrific Giovanna Sardelli--and the skill of its actors.
Thankfully, this ain't Shyamalan: all of these issues are remedied by the intimate details chestnutted into Wall's writing and by his outstanding cast, both of which help to ground the show in its individual moments and not its ever-present conclusion. De Courcy is particularly good as Elsie, Wade's tomboy daughter, and she's got an easy chemistry with the laid-back Hollandsworth. Their odd, isolating hobbies give them an instant connection: she accepts that he records everything, hoping to hear his dead father's voice somewhere in the static, and he accepts that she chooses the most damaged people to be her pen pals, perhaps in reflection of her own hardened life. (She understands too well that "even if you look down for a minute at someone else's problems, you always got to look back up again.") Dallimore neatly portrays his dangerous character, one of those unintentionally violent types, with equal parts fury and apology, and Harting might as well rename herself "Hurting," because even in the heat of passion, her character's aching sorrow--the fragility of loneliness--is powerfully on display.
Dreams of the Washer King also finds itself in the good hands of The Playwrights Realm, a production company that aims to provide "sustained support to early-career playwrights who create inventive, challenging material." To that end, they have brought Wall's vision to life, from Amy Clark's very '80s wardrobe, whose T-shirts nail Ryan's nerdy passions and whose washed-out colors compliment Traci Klainer's dolorous lighting and David Newell's charmingly dead set, which strews muted "vintage" washing machines across the stage set. Wall's play requires a sturdy foundation from which to haunt; I've seen too many interesting shows brought down by poor production values not to appreciate the good scene-building done here. (Keep an eye on the kitchen sink's faucet.)
All of these things keep the audience's mind from being restless--as Wade foreshadowed back in the first paragraph--and while the ending is not surprising, its execution certainly is, as are the far-from-predictable tears that well up. It may be just as well that Wall handicaps himself with a ghost story: he might otherwise kill the audience.