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World premiere pieces in DC confront the trauma in breathtaking fashion

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Theater is going through a lot of trauma these days. In There’s Always the Hudson, Paola Lázaro’s world premiere at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, two fellow group therapists, played by Lázaro and Justin Weaks, go on a vendetta to settle scores with their abusers. In Chelsea Marcantel’s The Upstairs Department, which makes its global debut at Signature Theatre, a sister and brother (Annie Grove and Zach Livingston) journey to a community of healing psychics to process their father’s devastating Covid death.

And in another world premiere in Washington, at the Studio Theater, Kimberly Belflower’s John Proctor Is the Villain, a classic Arthur Miller play, sets the stage for a classroom showdown between an accusatory teenage girl (Juliana Sass) and the charismatic high school teacher (Dave Register) whom everyone else in the small town of Georgia seems to love.

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The qualitative impact of these offerings varies widely, from stunning (“John Proctor”) to pleasant (“Upstairs Department”) to downright chaotic (“Hudson”). What these new works collectively reflect, however, is an American theater struggling to engage more vigorously with what predators, both human and biological, are doing to us. The point of all of these pieces is that we do not yet have to fully appreciate how one member of the community’s psychological wounds can terrify us all.

In “There’s Always the Hudson,” an explosive nihilistic sense of frustration is felt in Lázaro’s Lola and Weaks’ T as they conclude that years of therapeutic intervention have done nothing to quell their anger and fears. On that desperate evening, they decided to end their lives by jumping off a bridge into the Hudson, but not before confronting the men who raped them.

Directed by Jess McLeod in over-the-top style, the play slides haphazardly through the architecture of a meltdown as Lola and T lash out indiscriminately at innocent bystanders as well as the men who actually caused their pain. The enormity of her trauma is evoked in cocaine-fueled tirades; crude, vulgar insinuations of sex; and trash-strewn sets by Misha Kachman. Lola and T are literally hell-bent on taking revenge on a world that destroyed them.

The anger rightly feels intense, but the play suffers from its demonstrative excess: the audience picks it up all too quickly. Some of the encounters – like one in which Lola and T channel their own misplaced rage at another pathetic patient, played by Marilyn Torres – are theatrical. However, one particular scene rings with daring truth. It happens late in the play when Lola shows up at the house of a relative played by Migs Govea, who raped her when she was little. The encounter reveals a depth to Lázaro’s conception of There’s Always the Hudson that one wishes could be achieved with more consistency.

Marcantel’s “The Upstairs Department” at Signature plays trauma in a minor key: Livingston’s Covid survivor Luke, who has awakened from a months-long medically-induced coma, now believes he has some sort of second sight to accompany his second chance. He drags his incredulous sister, Grove’s impeccably excited Colleen, to Lilydale, NY to study with a medium (Joy Jones). The goal is to support Luke’s newfound belief that he has followers in the afterlife, including his late father.

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Holly Twyford directs the play with a gentle sort of “okay, I’ll buy that” appreciation of Luke’s certainty; Jones, who starred in Arena Stage’s “Seven Guitars” late last year, leads the class convincingly with a composed mask — one that hides her own tragedies. Together with set designer Paige Hathaway and lighting designer Annie Wiegand, Twyford Signature’s smaller space, the Ark, is shrouded in mystical froufrou: lamps and vintage photos above and on the walls glow in rhythmic patterns, as if lit to the beat of a symphony of spirits.

It’s a game of reassuring relationship skills rather than commanding revelation. Audiences threatened by viruses – and viral attacks on democracy – may find a pleasant distraction in Luke bestowing supernatural powers on himself. You might wish, like me, that Luke and Colleen could really comfort themselves in a world of bleak events by moving objects with their minds.

The most exciting of these works has already been reviewed in this article by Celia Wren. I join her ardent endorsement of Studio and Belflower’s “John Proctor Is the Villain,” one of the best plays I’ve seen since the return of live theater – and one that sets a traumatic event in an amazingly imaginative context .

The classroom of Register’s eminent Mr. Smith seems like an oasis of sorts of enlightenment for a one-traffic-light town in North Georgia (or maybe we city dwellers are just too quick to impose our own provincialism on rural America). His students – all seven summoned with exciting authenticity under the superb direction of Marti Lyons – study Miller’s The Crucible with an apparent preoccupation with the character of Abigail. She is the teenage ringleader of a group of girls who fabricate allegations of witchcraft against upstanding townspeople of Salem, Mass., leading to the execution of innocents.

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Miller and Mr. Smith may have in mind an allegory for McCarthyism – the witch hunt of alleged communists of the 1950s. The brilliance of John Proctor is the Villain lies in Belflower’s eye-opening turn of the tables: it is the seduction of young Abigail by Proctor, the play’s supposed hero, that enlivens the playwright’s plot. There is a related topic in Mr. Smith’s class; It is dramatized in an amazing twist by Juliana Sass as a girl harboring a secret pain she can no longer contain.

The playwright draws a parallel between Abigail from The Crucible and Sass’ Shelby, eloquently connecting their fates. The explanation that Belflower proposes for Abigail’s crazy dancing in the woods is ideally analogized in the last scene. If any current play could convince us of a continuum of abuse that stretches back to the earliest epoch of American culture, this is it.

There’s always the Hudson, by Paola Lazaro. Directed by Jess McLeod. Sentences, Misha Kachman; Costumes, Ivania Stack; Lighting, Barbara Samuels; Ton, Tosin Olufolabi. With Elan Zafir. Approximately 90 minutes. Until June 5 at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D St. NW. woolmammoth.net.

The Head Department, by Chelsea Marcantel. Directed by Holly Twyford. Set, Paige Hathaway; Costumes, Ivania Stack; Lighting, Annie Wiegand; Ton, Kenny Neal. Approximately 90 minutes. Until June 12 at the Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. signtheatre.org.

John Proctor is the villain, by Kimberly Belflower. Marti Lyons is directing. Set, Luciana Stecconi; Costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; Lighting, Jesse Belsky; Ton, Kathy Ruvuna. Starring Zachary Keller, Shawn Denegre-Vaught, Lida Maria Benson, Resa Mishina, Miranda Rizzolo, Jordan Slattery, Deidre Staples. At the Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW through June 12. studiotheatre.org.

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