Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has once again brought forth a crackling production of an incisive play that makes a statement about contemporary society without preaching. After Ashley, directed with deep empathy and a sure sense of tone by Lee Mikeska Gardner, is a furiously intelligent, yet often very funny, examination of the way survivors of a notorious crime become media stars, and the fascinated voyeurism of the regular people who feel as if they know the victims, perpetrators, and families from their television exposure.
Playwright Gina Gionfriddo grew up in the Washington area, and her story takes place in the upper-middle-class environs of Bethesda, Md. Alden Hammond (Bruce Nelson) is an education reporter for The Washington Post; his wife Ashley (Marni Penning) teaches art part-time; and their 14-year-old son Justin (Mark Sullivan) is wrestling with adolescence. The year is 1999.
Gionfriddo gives Ashley free rein in the first scene, since it’s obvious that something bad is going to happen to her. (That much is clear from the title.) The action jumps ahead three years before the audience again sees Alden, who has found a new purpose in life as grieving widower, and Justin, who doesn’t like his place in the media spotlight. More to the point, the audience has seen the real Ashley, and immediately senses the gap between that intelligent, troubled woman and the saintly, idealized “Ashley” described after her death.
While some of the satiric targets may seem a bit easy – the self-aggrandizing television personality crusading for morality and justice (a dead-on Paul Morella in a sleekly tailored black suit), or the use of sensationalized re-enactments of sex crimes for the sake of “increasing awareness” and, incidentally, ratings – the play never sinks to the cheap shot. It’s about treating people as people, rather than martyrs or blank slates for exploitation by a ravenous media culture.
The playwright uses words skillfully, surgically incisive one moment and provoking gasps the next. (One character describes a state-of-the-art shelter for battered women, complete with gourmet chef and gym, as “the Canyon Ranch Spa of women’s shelters.” Shocking, yet perfect.) She also plays with the simplistic assumptions sometimes found in American society, such as the idea that daily life before Sept. 11, 2001, was somehow sheltered and free from anxiety. “An era of comfort. What era was that?” asks the emotionally shell-shocked Justin of a young woman (Deanna McGovern) who approaches him in a bar.
The entire cast is pitch-perfect, including the always delightful Michael Willis as an outwardly oily but surprisingly sympathetic man with his own memories of Ashley. Sullivan brings tremendous range to a complex role, while Nelson makes sure his character’s pain remains visible underneath the less attractive qualities of ambition and greed.
Scenic designer James Kronzer can do magic with sliding translucent panels and a few pieces of furniture, paired with the prismatic lighting of Lisa L. Ogonowski.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company