There’s something supernatural about The Watershed’s production of “The Approach.”
Presented as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, the theatre (actually a former fitness studio that has been temporarily converted) is dim upon entering, lit only by a few lamps. Eerie music fills the air. Three women are seated away from the audience, still as statues. Around them are a half dozen wooden chairs, tilted like they should have fallen, but instead frozen mid-fall. Before any words are spoken, there is already something haunting about this play.
As presented by The Watershed, “The Approach” is somewhat of a ghost story. The question is: Who’s being haunted and who’s doing the haunting?
The acting is so mesmerizing that it draws you in and refuses to lose your attention for the entirety of the play’s 60 minutes.
From the script alone, you might not be able to tell how eerie this play is. Written by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe in 2018, “The Approach” follows three middle-aged women in Dublin who used to be close friends, but now catch up only intermittently and always one-on-one. In every scene, they sit across from each other at a round table and sip their tea while they gossip. Anna tells Cora she’ll never forgive her sister Denise for allegedly stealing her husband Oliver. Denise tells Cora all about her new husband Jared. Denise and Anna make up after Jared cheats on her. Cora confides in Anna about her abusive relationship. At some point in every conversation, without fail, they reminisce about when all three were friends together.
At first, watching these conversations seems almost like casual eavesdropping, like listening in on the next table over at a restaurant. But quickly, something starts to feel off. The women act on the surface exactly like old friends, but there’s a deeper tension to the way they speak to each other, a tension that they seem to be completely unaware of—or more likely, seem desperate to pretend isn’t there. Repeatedly, the tension builds until they can’t ignore it anymore, but just when it seems like the women might explode, they cut the tension with a memory, and suddenly the cycle starts over.
The cyclical nature of “The Approach” shows itself in other ways, too. There’s the physical movement of the actors. They cross to the other side of the table between scenes, so that by the end of the play, they are quite literally back where they started. There’s also the dialogue. They often find themselves having the same conversations, sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly, but every time it feels like they’re hoping for a different response. It starts to feel like they’re searching for something deeper in these conversations, but what could they be searching for?
We never really find out because they always pull back before they can get that deep. It’s in those moments that “The Approach” is so haunting. For just a flicker of a moment, the women seem like wandering souls lost in the night, stuck in one place and time. They are haunted by their memories with each other and the connection they once had but no longer do, even as they try to pretend it’s still there. They keep trying to reach for that connection again, but never quite get there. At the same time, in bringing up these old memories, they also haunt each other. They can’t shake their ghosts and yet at the same time are the ghosts themselves.
The Watershed’s three performers—Tessa Klein, Nancy Bannon, and Madeleine Burke Pitt—all convey that ghostliness exquisitely. Their acting is so mesmerizing that it draws you in and refuses to lose your attention for the entirety of the play. It’s in the tension of the script that they really shine. Klein, Bannon, and Pitt play off each other incredibly well, building to these moments of heightened emotion and pulling back so casually you almost get lost in the rhythm of it all. They, too, seem to get lost in it.
In fact, between scenes they quite literally become those lost, wandering souls. As they exit into the darkness, the women hold a lamp ahead of them and walk slowly, searching but also seemingly unsure of what it is they are searching for.
Director Michael Chamberlin’s staging in general is simple but works well for a show and space like this. Gorgeous original music by Reid May, stark but evocative lighting by Venus Gulbranson, and an atmospheric set design by April Joy Bastian work in much the same way. Although I would argue one important creative decision toward the end undermines the play’s greatest trick more than adds to it, the creative decisions as a whole effectively bring out the eeriness that already exists in the text.
That eeriness will stick with you, too. After spending an hour watching the women of “The Approach” seem more and more like ghosts, I realized on the walk home that I was the one left haunted.
Running time: Approximately 60 minutes.
“The Approach” runs through July 24, 2022 as part of Capital Fringe Festival, performing at Representation. 3270 M Street NW, Washington, DC 20007. To purchase tickets, click here. COVID-19 Health and Safety: Proof of vaccination or recent negative test and masks are required.