Perisphere Theatre’s production of “Hazardous Material” by Beth Kander paints a post-World War II, Lavender Scare-era portrait of two women whose “scandalous” behavior sets the tone for their friendship and the way they’re forced to live their lives. Stories that center on the LGBTQ+ experience are generally ones to which I gravitate. The way in which this play is handled, the highly nuanced narrative, and the power of Perisphere Theater’s mirror-imaged production, really make this a piece that explores a facet of the queer experience in an unexpected and extremely engaging way.
The way in which this play is handled, the highly nuanced narrative, and the power of Perisphere Theater’s mirror-imaged production, really make this a piece that explores a facet of the queer experience in an unexpected and extremely engaging way.…a fascinating piece.
The play centers on two time periods—the present day and the mid-1950s. As it jumps back and forth between the two, audiences get breadcrumbs to a trail that may or may not lead to the conclusion of a mystery. The crux of that mystery is who lived in an apartment that is now, in its present-day incarnation, a hoarder’s haven. What, if anything, was this person hiding?
In the 1950s-era scenes, we do in fact meet the denizens of this apartment. The way in which Jessica Trementozzi’s thoughtful scenic design presents the apartment, and then its mirrored 2020’s reflection, works exceedingly well and becomes a critical part of this story as it unfolds. This story is slow to unfold, though in an intimately gripping way, much like piecing together a puzzle and eagerly awaiting that final finished image.
The apartment is Esther’s—this is not really a spoiler as we learn this information fairly early on. Esther is a war widow, or so she reveals. Her neighbor Lynley is also a war widow. The two find comfort in one another. Their friendship fills the spaces of otherwise very lonely and uneventful days. This friendship soon blossoms, and the two women decide to live together to offset expenses that on Lynley’s end are becoming impossible to bear. It is the dynamic of this friendship and the controversy it causes within the building that occupies the ideological center of this play. It also spotlights the perceived “deviant” and scary nature of queerness in a world where war widows are to be defined by the terms of their widowhood and nothing more. In other words, the women are not allowed a sentient inner life and certainly not one that would provoke them to feel for someone of the same sex.
The other story simultaneously being told is that of Cassie and Hal, two county investigators tasked with trying to figure out who lived and died in the apartment. The place truly is something out of an episode of “Hoarders.” All the investigators have to go by are letters and some paperwork bearing nothing more than initials. Of course, the context of their visit to this space does set the scene for these characters to reveal their own hardships and life sagas. Hal is going through a bitter divorce. Cassie is one year sober and dealing with some demons of her own, experiencing at least one moment of weakness. Ultimately though, this play is Esther’s story, and the two present-day characters serve to facilitate the telling of that story in time capsule-like fashion.
This really is a fascinating piece. The playing out of simultaneous storylines in before-and-after spaces adds a dimension that is necessary to the pacing and to sustaining the overall mystery. Perisphere did a wonderful job of casting. As Esther, Kullan Edberg compellingly balances her character’s calm, matter-of-fact demeanor with a heartbreaking closeted-ness that is about to burst beyond the door. As Lynley, Dawn Thomas Reidy does an expert job of delivering the funnier moments while displaying the type of vulnerability that makes her character the audience’s touchstone for the confusion and misunderstandings of that era. Playing the exasperated and no-nonsense Cassie, Jessica Ludd gives us a character who puts her heart on a plate without meaning to, and it is wonderful to watch. While Seth Rosenke’s Hal is the affable guy you can’t help but like/hate. He does this well.
As noted, the set design is integral to not only understanding the plot, but appreciating the worlds in which these characters are subsumed—the sparse sterility of one and the suffocating claustrophobic nature of the other. With some help from Hailey LaRoe’s lighting design and Liz Long’s prop design, the contrasting nature of these settings is made all too appreciable. Under Lizzi Albert’s smart direction, the two sides to this story coalesce beautifully, resulting in that eagerly awaited puzzle image. Whether or not it is a fully completed image, you’ll just have to see the show for yourself to find out.
Running time: Two hours including one intermission.
“Hazardous Materials’ runs through November 18, 2023 presented by Perisphere Theater at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St, Bethesda, MD 20815. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.