BWW Review: A Powerful GLORIA at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' plays Appropriate and An Octoroon are among some of the most memorable works I've seen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the theater's latest offering from him - Gloria, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize - is certainly their equal. Director Kip Fagan has assembled a stellar cast featuring a mix of DC regulars and some new faces that forces us to confront the uncomfortable truths that are central to Jacobs-Jenkins' play. It's an explosive and thought-provoking production in more ways than one - and a natural fit for Woolly.
It's the morning after Gloria's (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) housewarming party. Only Ani (Megan Graves) and the intern Miles (Justin Weaks) are in the office. When her co-worker and fellow editorial assistant Dean (Conrad Schott) finally shows up at the New York-based magazine office, Ani is shocked to hear that he actually attended weird Gloria's party though she's eager to hear all the sad and gory details. Gloria has been at the magazine for what seems like forever, but no one really knows much about her - other than the fact that her job is basically her life and she's really awkward. Kendra (Eunice Hong) shows up a little later, and the group discusses Gloria and the party a little more, which leads to a bigger discussion (and plenty of squabbles) about the career challenges they all face in a dying medium, the editors they support, internships, their dreams and goals, and more. They don't really have a lot of work to do, but they make a lot of noise, which frustrates Lorin (Ahmad Kamal). He's a factchecker with an immense workload (a profile piece about a pop singer who recently died needs to be rushed to print) and not even his noise canceling headphones can totally block out the chatty 20-somethings - some of whom, I might add, are big fans of the now dead pop singer. They are more than a little annoyed that they don't have the opportunity to write about her.
In an ambitious move, Kendra goes down the hall to give some notes the writer of the coveted profile piece - a move that backfires. She then takes a little trip to Starbucks - a trip that will impact her life's trajectory probably more than she ever realized. A stunning act of violence occurs, perpetrated by an unexpected source. Dean and Kendra are impacted in different ways, and - in the months that follow the tragedy - consider how they might benefit from their experiences (by writing books, of course). Later on, Nan (also Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), an editor who also "experienced" the tragedy funnels her own ambition into another potentially profit-making writing endeavor. The setting changes, sure, but the behaviors do not. In a tight two hours or so, Jacobs-Jenkins explores the dark side of ambition in the workplace and the intricacies of workplace relations. It's a story that, in some cases, features elements that are seemingly ripped from newspaper headlines, but he approaches and tells the story in such a unique and interesting way that it really seems wholly original yet relevant.
The horrific tragedy drives the rest of the play. Six other characters emerge (played by the same actors) after that climax is reached at the end of Act One, but the themes of "dangerous ambition" and the complexity of workplace relations are consistently interwoven throughout. Eunice Hong, Conrad Schott, Justin Weaks, and Megan Graves each play two or three 20 or 30-somethings and succeed at distinguishing between each of them while making clear the traits they share. Keegan, arguably one of DC's best actresses, provides a master class in versatility portraying both Gloria and Nan. It's really an incredible transformation as she inhabits both characters exceptionally well.
While Kip Fagan's direction is just right for a play that has so many unexpected twists and turns, so many caffeinated conversations, and so many changes in tone, I do have one quibble with the staging. I can't speak for every audience member, but I couldn't see the pivotal moment that ends Act One from my center rear orchestra seat. Without giving too much away, one character had his back to the audience, and he blocked my view of another. There were a few other moments where the blocking hindered me from completely immersing myself into the world of the play, and likely at least a few other audience members. Nonetheless, the strength of the acting made this less of an issue than it would be otherwise.
Strong production values, namely Misha Kachman's transformational set design and Tosin Olufolabi's sound design, complement the strong acting and direction. Overall, Gloria - though uncomfortable at times - is a truly powerful start to Woolly's season.
Running Time - 2 hours and five minutes, including one intermission
GLORIA plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through September 30, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.