By: May. 02, 2017
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Randy Baker drew from his own upbringing in Asia to craft his play "Forgotten Kingdoms," getting a world premiere at Rorschach Theatre, where he is co-artistic director.

Growing up as son of teachers and the grandson of a Pentacostal missionary, Baker sensed the underlying ideological friction between the incoming Christians and the Muslims of the island where they settled.

After a long road of development that began as his graduate school thesis in 2012, "Forgotten Kingdoms" was workshopped in Houston, New York and in D.C., including a staged reading at the Kennedy Center as part of the Page to Stage Festival. It got further development in the places that inspired him - Malaysia and Indonesia, including a public reading in Jakarta.

Over time, it's become this tense family drama with an embedded mystery that becomes a metaphor for the promise and uses of religion.

In addition to the fertile debate on the nature of faith (and the sheer presumptuousness of missionaries) there are several dramatic hooks on which to grasp. And Baker's own experience adds the kind of precise detail that makes the story, as fantastic as it becomes, rooted in truth.

A major benefit of the Jakarta readings came not only in seeing how it played to that culture, but in snagging one of its actors, Rizal Iwan, to return to make the trip to D.C. to play the role of Yusuf, the son of a local leader who is trying to come to terms with the missionary family. (He's here with help from the Indonesian embassy).

The family itself is having its own problems that unravel as the play goes on. The first to be recognized is the son (Jeremy Gee), who seems to be on his own wavelength as he spends time on the home on stilts surrounded by water. The locals think he's haunted.

Whether he is on the autistic spectrum or simply given to daily escapes from home because of a skittish mother is not clear. The mother, well played by Natalie Cutcher, has her own reasons for her spotty maternal style, and carries a burden of guilt because of it.

The father (Sun King Davis) has a gregariousness that identifies him as a good candidate to become an evangelical pastor, but also an underlying fear of the fragility of his family based on his own less than pious past in Yakima, Wash.

Director Cara Gabriel keeps a nice balance between the immediacy of the domestic turmoil and the theological discussions on religion and cultural coercion.

Deb Sevigny's considerable set - comprised of the porch of the house on stilts surrounded by water and a long jetty to get there - looks good and plays well, emphasizing the Western family's distance from the community it inhabits and attempts to influence.

The water underneath is indicated by cloth roiling and enhanced by Justin Schmitz' sound, picking up the splashes of things that drop into the water, big and small. And the sounds of the ocean ebbs and flows, disappearing at times altogether in the way that one blocks the sound of the ocean out some times.

Tyler Dubuc's light design is so subtle you can barely tell the sun going down and blackness engulfing the set as night falls.

All the workshopping on the play has made it a solid work indeed, and what they learn from this production will likely make it even better, as it seems just a step or two from a great American play. Which is exciting to see on H Street.

Running time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Photo credit: Sun King Davis and Natalie Cutcher in "Forgotten Kingdoms." Photo by DJ Corey Photography).

Forgotten Kingdoms continues through May 21 at the Atlas Performing aArts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets at 202-452-5538 or online.


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