Review: DISTILLATION at Solas Nua

Considering the Irish peat bog, while sitting around a table of it.

By: Apr. 17, 2024
Review: DISTILLATION at Solas Nua
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You meet in the hotel lobby and go up the elevator in two groups of 10 to the fourth floor. Once assembled there, you’re led to a community room where you take your seat around a table covered in clumps of black earth that we’ll soon come to learn is peat. Irish peat, from the bogs. Three hundred pounds of it, shipped from the Emerald Isle.

The peat is important, though, and the whole point of the theatrical presentation “Distillation,” presented by Solas Nua at the Eaton DC. It’s the creation of Luke Casserly, an Irish playwright and environmentalist who workshopped the piece in D.C. last year and has since presented it in Dublin, where the esteemed Abbey Theatre has now become a co-producer.

With his round-rimmed glasses, tousled hair and a natural fabric jumpsuit that seems from the worlds of both science and gardening, he takes his seat at the table as well and opens his notebook. 

His first words, though, are that of the soil (“Hi, I’m a little nervous”), a conceit to which he will return before the short performance is over. Casserly eventually introduces himself, and how he came to be presiding over all this peat — a veritable peat presider. 

He came from a part of the country where his father was in part a peat farmer on land where his grandfather did the same. Back then, the black, rich clay-like soil was burned for fuel even as it had its own environmental role to play in the country’s landscape. 

Returning home during the pandemic, as many young people did, he found out more about the traditions and its recent demise as an industry. To recreate a phone conversation with his dad, a random audience member is asked to read from a script to complete their dialog.

It’s just one of many segments of “Distillation" that begins with passing along, first, a plastic container of coffee beans (not explained), then passing a handful of crumpled peat itself (dryer than expected with not much loamy scent at all). Later, some spongey living moss is passed around in the solemn theatrical show-and-tell. 

At one point Casserly disappears from his seat, only to have his head spring up in the middle of the dirt-table, bringing to mind absurdist 20th century theatrical productions, from Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” to Edward Albee’s “Sandbox” where actors heads would appear from similar piles of dirt.

Casserly doesn’t stay there long, though. He returns to his chair where he stands, only to become a human screen for some video about more peat history.

It’s educational in its way, and creative in its way of telling the story in an intimate setting. But it wasn’t too different from having a loopier-than-usual science lecture. 

Past work by Casserly sounds like it had the same kind of vibe: he’s led audiences through city streets, backyard gardens, train stations, beaches and, yes, bogs. His work has resulted in the plantings of thousands of wildflowers and indigenous trees in the Irish Midlands.

In a way, it’s the perfect application of his theater degrees from Trinity College in Dublin — as well as a professional diploma in art and ecological practice from the National College of Art and Design.

So is it theater or ecological presentation? Maybe something leaning more to the latter, but in a world where a climate crisis looms, maybe that’s the more important choice. 

For those expecting to be immersed in what I imagine is the rich, loamy fragrance of the peat bog, the material, dried out from its journey, was a little disappointing. In its place, though, there are little vials of perfume, especially devised for the project from a perfumer in West Cork. (Joan Woods gets the rare credit in a theatrical program for “perfume”). 

Did her concoction nail the fragrance of the faded peat industry? Not from the comments solicited from viewers around the table, who compared it to grandma’s parlor, wildflowers or workshops (Still: It’s the rare take-home theatrical souvenir). 

“Distillation” — a title that may refer to Casserly’s continuing ruminations on the topic — still has the feel of a production that is still in the works. With a length that's more like a fringe festival offering, It flits quickly between different segments and approaches before it’s suddenly declared the end. 

Perhaps it will evolve further — as the peat production has — as it completes its two-theater Washington run and prepares to hit the road to New York City, Buffalo and maybe  even the Midwest, where it would have further resonance for Americans who work the land.

Running time: About 45 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Patricio Cassinoni. 

“Distillation” continues through May 12 at Eaton House, 1201 K St NW. It moves to the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda for performances May 15-19. Tickets available online


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