Review: ‘Summerland’ at Washington Stage Guild

What began as a mundane two-hander focused on stiff argumentative males in an investigative procedural play, develops into something pleasingly knotty and intense. All it takes is one new character appearing on stage. She throws the entire production and the men in it off balance. That is a good thing, a very good thing.

Yury Lomakin as William Mumler and Steven Carpenter as Joseph Tooker in the DC premiere of Arlitia Jones' Summerland, playing through October 21 at the Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Yury Lomakin as William Mumler and Steven Carpenter as Joseph Tooker in the DC premiere of Arlitia Jones’ Summerland, playing through October 21 at the Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The show is Summerland by Arlitia Jones, a playwright new to the DC area. Jones is a poet and playwright from Anchorage, Alaska. Summerland is the opening production of the 2018-19 season for the venerable Washington Stage Guild (WSG). WSG selects plays that are full of ideas and argument, across all time periods. Summerland certainly fits that bill.

Summerland is set in the later 1860s as the Civil War has ended. Something new is afoot in America. It is called spiritualism. Spiritualism seems a reaction to the staggering carnage and death count of the Civil War. Roughly 620,000 died in the war. This amounted to 2 percent of the population at the time, which would be the equivalent of about 6 million Americans today. Amid such utter carnage, soldiers did not wear dog tags back then. Unidentified bodies could be buried in mass graves–and had to be, given conditions of the time. Families might never have the opportunity to say goodbye to their kin.

So something called spirit photography came to be. It was an attempt to capture images of loved ones in the afterlife who might be nearby.

Spirit photography is the beginning point of Summerland. A quick synopsis: Based upon a true story, Summerland tells the mysterious tale of William H. Mumler (Yury Lomakin in his WSG debut), a spirit photographer with a skill for capturing haunting images from the world beyond. The Civil War has ended, and a grieving nation sees many turning to spiritualism to contact the dead. Mumler’s business booms as mourners, including a very famous one, flock to his studio. A city official, Joseph Tooker (Steven Carpenter) is sent to ascertain if spirit photography is a fraud. Tooker is a persistent debunker of Mumler. But debunking in a trial to prove fraud before a judge is not so easy.

Carpenter and Lomakin are both strong-willed, calculating males when they are taking the measure of one another. Their dialogue seems ripped from the headline types of police procedurals that clutter current television and cable networks. The audience watches the internal workings of two male characters circling each other, each trying to knock the other off balance with words–while learning some interesting American history along the way.

But then, the production takes off into something else again under the clear direction of veteran director Kasi Campbell.

The lift-off point is when Rachel Felstein makes her appearance as Mrs. Mumler, late in Act I. At first, Mrs. Mumler is dressed in a very period black mourning dress (Sigrid Johannesdottir, costume designer). Is she an apparition? Is she playing a part to scare investigator Tooker away? After intermission, things become more tangled and vibrant. Summerland takes on a new, ringing life in which male fear of the female comes openly onto the WSG stage at downtown DC’s Undercroft Theatre.

With the Jones script and her directing touch, Campbell enlarged the Summerland procedural aspects about two males batting over spirit photography into something for a modern audience to sink its mind into, and then debate after the performance. The power of a wife over her husband and the power of the same woman over another man comes full force–and without raising her voice, throwing a tantrum, acting entitled, or doing something physical to cause pain and suffering. A hand gesture, a more silky fabric outfit, a calculating pat on a spot on a loveseat next to her, is all it takes to discombobulate the two men into some kind of submission.

Yury Lomakin as William Mumler and Rachel Felstein as Mrs. Mumler in the DC premiere of Arlitia Jones' Summerland, playing through October 21 at the Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Yury Lomakin as William Mumler and Rachel Felstein as Mrs. Mumler in the DC premiere of Arlitia Jones’ Summerland, playing through October 21 at the Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Felstein (in her WSG debut) by her mere presence, left me to drink in dialogue that might perhaps have been hidden away with a male director. With Campbell’s touch, Felstein brings out Jones’ script with line delivery and subtle visual depictions. As Mrs. Mumler, Felstein has a husband with no interest, if not fearful of sexual intimacy. So what does he do? He buries himself in his work. Felstein also drives another man bonkers merely by chatting softly, even while showing bite as a possible traitor to the Union cause during the Civil War. The anxieties that Felstein’s character of Mrs. Mumler causes are visually palpable reactions of the men on stage with her. They pull away.

All in all, the WSG production of Summerland is really two shows in one. There is the “main” focus in Act I on issues about death, spirituality, reason, faith, truth, and science. This is a rather “cold” weighty argumentative act full of male logic, nicely performed by Carpenter and Lomakin.

Then there is the much more intriguing focus that Summerland veers off into in Act II. This is Summerland with heat and vitality about relationships between men and woman. Now that focus was something that had me lean forward not wanting to miss the dialogue, the visual physical presence, and the psychological nuances. This part has sizzle, and plenty to debate after the show over some drinks. Let me know what you think.

Summerland, presented by the Washington Stage Guild, plays through October 21, 2018, at the Undercroft Theatre – 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or go online.