Sherry (Lady Davonne), a WMATA train driver, starts her day at Shady Grove in Derwood, MD. She has a word with the lead car of her train, “Forty-Twenty”: a soon to be decommissioned vehicle which she is about to take out on its final day of service. The Metro phased out the last of the Breda 4000 series in 2017. An introspective journal writer, Sherry’s shifts, mostly spent in the operator’s cabin at the front of her train, have given her the moments of solitude to cultivate an interior life through her notebooks.
Sherry and the Forty-Twenty are the two characters who make the entire journey from Shady Grove to Glenmont in Playwright Brittany Alyse Willis’ Use All Available Doors, presented by Pinky Swear Productions and currently running at the Dupont Underground, an art space built into the Dupont Circle trolley station that was itself decommissioned in 1962. Today, one descends at the 19th Street entrance and walks along the platform and trolley tracks that trace an arc under Dupont, past an exhibit of video by Irish artists (curated by Solas Nua) along the inner wall, and graffiti commissioned by the Underground on the outer wall, heading towards the stage.
As Sherry drives her train along the twenty-seven stations and 39.9 miles of the Red Line’s U-shaped route, a myriad of passengers (played by a seven-member ensemble of Tokia “2Deep” Carter, Shane Marshall Solo, Ezra Tozian, jay sun, Darnell Eaton, Nicole Ruthmarie, and Nexus) embark and disembark.
There is something familiar in most of the stories to anyone who is a regular rider of any urban rapid-transit system: the intimate, and often uncomfortable, conversations overheard, the rambling monologue of a fellow passenger who goes through life largely ignored, the breaches of rider etiquette, the gregarious rail fan who is ready to catalog facts about the train to anyone who will listen, the confused tourists who have never ridden any city’s public transit before, private moments of introspection or reverie, and the many service delays for which the Breda 4000s were notorious.
The constant flow of passengers through the doors gives the play its structure: an anthology of vignettes tied together by Sherry and car Forty-Twenty. This gives Willis and Director Toni Rae Salmi the opportunity to be playful. Naturalistic slice-of-life episodes give way to monologues, self-aware genre-parodies, slapstick comedy, and dance numbers (there’s an extended one to Trouble Funk’s “Let’s Get Small”). Sometimes the pieces seem to develop in the free-associative manner of a distracted rider’s stream of consciousness – veering unexpectedly because of a non-sequitur.
The longest sequence (and comic highlight) comes during one of those service delays when the train is stuck in a tunnel in between stations. Normally just an inconvenience, it quickly plays the popular narrative of disparate group thrown together in an enclosed space for laughs as an every person action hero (a comically serious Ezra Tozian), a desperate man in a hurry, a cheerfully helpful passenger, and a couple with a gigantic baby named Little Johnny (played by Solo) must find a way to survive and establish the rules of society until the train starts moving again.
Sherry, meanwhile, when not announcing the next stop, doors closing, or service delays, is composing a eulogy for her mother, and wondering whether that loss and the end of the 4000s that she trained on means that she should consider leaving WMATA for another line of work.
The collaboration between Willis and Pinky Swear (the playwright was closely involved as the production manager) helps give Use All Available Doors a hyper-local sense of place – and it is a testament to the self-confidence of all the artists involved that they embrace their identity as Washingtonians (in the expansive sense that can include the suburbs) and embrace the idea that they are part of a tradition of artists based in the city and the larger metropolitan area – and while in some cases, the individual contributions are obvious, there is good reason to believe that Dramaturg Joan Cummins (also a historian) played a significant role in helping shape the specificity that grounds even the most fanciful interludes.
(It certainly isn’t unprecedented to use rapid transit as a setting for hyper-local theater – the now-defunct Boston-based Mill 6 Collaborative, for instance, would each year commission local playwrights to create one-acts for their annual “The T-Plays” – even as many Boston dramatists were setting their plays in NYC.)
Sound Designer Cresent Haynes doesn’t just recreate (and in one episode, playfully deconstruct) the sounds of the Metro; she has created a genre-spanning montage of local music by artists who not only made their home in the metropolitan area but chose to remain. Duke Ellington is perhaps the most famed Washingtonian not to make the playlist–though we have landmarks named after Ellington, Haynes apparently hasn’t forgiven him for leaving for New York.
Prop and Costume Designer Liz Gossens is similarly attentive to the local fabric – for example, the t-shirts and patches for bands that didn’t make Haynes’ soundtrack (Gossens gives visual shoutouts to recent groups like Redline Graffiti and Capital Crisis, but also classic harDCore bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat). She also slips in such such geographical nods as having a rider wearing a Wilson High School jacket boarding at Tenleytown-AU.
Set Designer Mike Salmi does a fine job of showing what can be done on a limited budget. Even with an obviously hand-made set using off-the-shelf items (like handrails made from plumbing pipes), he still evokes the colors and textures of the 3000s and 4000s with their distinctive orange, yellow and cream interiors.
Lighting designer Katie McCreary makes effective use of light in the disaster movie parody and in a more magical moment, in a story about fireflies on the Metro.
It would be easy for a full-length play with only the slightest narrative through-line, composed of vignettes, beginning and ending much the same way, with commuters boarding and exiting a train, to seem repetitive – but it is Willis’ and Toni Rae Salmi’s insistence on bending that format as far as it can go, Davonne’s charisma as Sherry, and an ensemble capable of playing a wide variety of characters from the most archetypical to the most eccentric that keeps the audience riding to the end of the line.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.