Review: ‘Blight’ by Pinky Swear Productions at Anacostia Playhouse

John Bavoso's absorbing comic mystery fable is about lots more than a blighted house.

A few years ago, the teenage son of a single mom shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, and now the nice suburban home they lived in is a blight. The house not only brings the neighborhood down; it brings the whole town down. Enter two women, married to each other, who buy the house and move in. They bring with them a rift about whether to have kids—and now whether to raise them here. Such is the intriguing setup of Blight, written by a man and directed by a man and produced by the explicitly woman-centric Pinky Swear Productions.

Have I teased you into this infamous house yet?

Pauline Lamb as Silvia and Rachel Manteuffel as Cat in ‘Blight.’ .Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Among the surprises in store in John Bavoso’s absorbing comic mystery fable, handily directed by Ryan Maxwell, is that it’s about lots more than a house.

We get a hint there will be big reveals with Scenic Designer PJ Carbonell’s empty eggshell-white living room, in which the few furnishings are covered in muslin. Fanny, a real estate agent (the delightfully badass Dannielle Hutchinson), ushers in the househunting couple, Silvia (an enjoyably scrappy Pauline Lamb) and Cat (the arrestingly reticent-to-feisty Rachel Manteuffel). At the center of the play is Silvia and Cat’s relationship, a relatable mashup of harmony and discord, and Lamb and Manteuffel play all the octaves of it, from lovey-dovey to how-dare-you, with virtuosic ease. (Shoutout to Intimacy Director Emily Sucher for all their sapphic stuff, which they meld into like butter.)

The mayor of the town, Tracy (an amusingly iron-lady Jacqueline Chenault), shows up to welcome the new homeowners with a basket of fruit. “Isn’t that a little too on the nose?” asks Silvia, which is typical of Bavoso’s dry wit. The mayor and city council want to buy the blighted house and raze it. The homeowners will have none of it.

Then the play pulls off a portentous theatrical trick. Silvia and Cat leave the stage and presto we are in the home where the teenager and his mom live. We might guess we are now in for a ride, and we would be right, because during Blight the same set time-travels back and forth between before the shooting and after.

(I recently saw this device used in Kathleen Ackerley’s also-intriguing The Interstellar Ghost Hour. If it has a name, I don’t know it. But I do know it does amazing and spacey things in one’s head.)

Rebecca Dreyfuss as Loretta and Thomas Shuman as Kristofer in ‘Blight.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

We now meet the gangly Kristofer (a magnetically angsty Thomas Shuman) and his over-worked, over-stressed mother Loretta (an achingly sensitive Rebecca Dreyfuss). They are the other center of the play. The mounting conflict between them turns on Kristofer’s hurt and anger over his dad’s abandonment of him—an angle in the play that not only motivates the plot but reveals Bavoso’s keen ability to delve into the psychology of a character even in the midst of his script’s wit.

There are three other characters in Blight whose exact relationship to the story is best found out from the stage: A real estate inspector named Dave (a solid, straight-shooting Robert Heinly), who avers he’s not a “ghostbuster.” A fundy-Christian neighbor named Craig (a disarmingly amiable Brian Crane). And a firebrand pro-choice activist named Lisa (an entertainingly rad Hilary Kelly).

Lighting Designer Katie McCreary deftly shuttles us back and forth between time frames, as do Katherine Offutt’s properties and set dressing. Costume Designer Heather Whitpan’s standouts are the sloganed T-shirts some characters wear. And Sound Designer Crescent Hayes cleverly interleaves the scenes with pop song commentary.

Rebecca Dreyfuss as Loretta and Thomas Shuman as Kristofer in ‘Blight.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

If you’re reading between the lines, you might infer that what’s going on in Blight is not so much about real estate as about the birthing and raising children. Whether to. How to. Why to. Or not. “You can do everything the right way and still raise a psychopath,” says the beleaguered Loretta at one point.

Aside from its laughs, which are scattered but sharp, at its core John Bavoso’s Blight is an engagingly original exploration of one of women’s most fraught choices in their childbearing years. Written from an implicitly women’s point of view, it has been imagined with insight and empathy by someone wombless. And that goes way beyond theatrical chick-trick.

Running Time: Two hours ten minutes, including one intermission.

Blight, presented by Pinky Swear Productions, plays through November 11, 2018, at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.