At turns larger-than-life and familiar, Kira Obolensky's Dirt Sticks digs into how the past can tie you down but second chances can free the soul.
The new play is a product of a three-year Andrew W. Mellon Grant that makes Obolensky the playwright-in-residence for top small theater Ten Thousand Things. The show highlights the strengths of both playwright and company. The tailor-made piece takes full advantage of Ten Thousand Things' bare-bones aesthetic, while presenting a story that resonates with any of the company's myriad audiences.
In a town where the mythic rubs shoulders with modern-day drudgery, Henry Wand has aimless ambition. Like most of the residents, he works at the ladder factory. His dreams are pretty small-scale: He wants to move up to be the manager of the fourth floor. As sometimes happens in stories like these, a peddler comes to town and changes everything. This man has a cart full of magic, from a penny that shows you a glimpse of the future (you can have it for a nickel) to a cup that brings back the past.
Henry sees his future — dead after jumping off the same 75-foot-high waterfall that claimed his mother 20 years before — and agrees to help the peddler with his plans, which mainly involve recapturing the love of his life, Mother Spindle. Things don't go quite according to plan, giving the playwright a chance to explore the notion of second chances — and to tell a cracking story loaded with intriguing characters.
The gravelly voiced H. Adam Harris plays Henry Wand with a mix of innocence and confusion, the archetype of a young hero. The events that shaped his life as a baby have come back to literally haunt him, as he quickly connects with the spirit of his mother — who he thinks is just a new young lodger with Mother Spindle.
Thomasina Petrus crafts Mother Spindle as a woman who has allowed the painful tale of her life (we learn a lot about that as the show goes on) to build a crust around her heart. Petrus builds off the anger of her character, allowing the eventual transformation at play's end to be that much more moving.
Stephen Cartmell's Peddler is a mixture of wonder, bluster, and world-weary exhaustion. His is the most magical of the characters — from his cart of tricks to evenings spent on the Moon — but one also grounded in the same tragedy that haunts the entire town.
Speaking of haunting, Sun Mee Chomet as the ghost of Henry's mother also plays something of an outsider, even though her character is central to all of the events. Chomet's is a character both young and old at the same time, someone who wants to live — or at least be free — but is tied down by tragedy.
Closing out the quintet of actors is Kimberly Richardson, whose role as Miss Laurel lets her showcase her skills as a physical actor. At the Peddler's cart, she gets a pair of gorgeous blue shoes — that happen to be enchanted. They have a will of their own and they won't come off. This means that Richardson is always in motion, seemingly not in control. She gives a beautifully outrageous and funny performance.
For all the talk of death and ghosts and lost chances, Dirt Sticks has a strong sense of humor that is brought out by the company and director Michelle Hensley. This is a fast-paced adventure that asks a lot of questions and has the good sense to let the story itself answer them.