Gregg Henry was familiar with Canadian playwright Morris Panych, exposed for the first time through a 2002 staging of his "Vigil" at Studio Theater in D.C. While in Toronto a few years ago, he purchased a number of plays to read; one of them was another Panych work titled "Girl in the Goldfish Bowl," a darkly comic family drama set during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"Its sense of humor was wicked and wonderful at the same time. The situation was kind of painfully human but essentially absurd," said Henry. "I was drawn to it."
He was floored when Carolyn Griffin, producing artistic director for MetroStage, asked him to consider directing "Goldfish" this season. It wasn’t until Henry read the play again that he realized why the material spoke to him so powerfully.
"I suddenly realized that my mother left my father in 1962; the spring before the Cuban Missile Crisis. That gave it sort of a personal impact," he said.
Henry didn’t have a memory of it, but soon combed through old photographs to reconstruct those memories — such as one that featured him with his mother on a dock, not unlike the type found in the fictional shore village where the play is set.
Henry said for a play as emotionally and tonally intense as "Girl in the Goldfish Bowl," having that personal connection is essential for a director and his performers.
"Any play that’s about more than simply the lowest common denominator…if you don’t have a reason inside for doing the play, than you shouldn’t be doing the play."
"GIRL IN THE GOLDFISH BOWL" opened Sept. 13 at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, and will run through Oct. 15. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and on Sunday at 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $35-40; call 703-548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org for ticket information.
Griffin said this is the U.S. premiere for Panych’s play, made possible in part by the support of the Canadian Embassy and the Alexandria and Virginia Commissions for the Arts.
It’s also made possible through the talents of actress Susan Lynskey, who plays Iris — an adult actress playing a 10-year-old girl, the main character in the play.
"It’s liberating," said Lynskey, a Helen Hayes Award nominee for her performance in Laramie Project at Olney Theater, on portraying Iris. "The character is so inquisitive and so smart, so wise beyond her years. It’s a combination of the wisdom of a 30-year-old and the hope of a 10-year old."
As U.S. warships head to Havana, Iris’s parents are in a marital crisis and her pet goldfish — which she believes keeps the world on its axis — has died. On the day of its funeral, a mysterious man comes into the family’s life; a man Iris suspects could be a reincarnation of her expired pet.
That fantasy element combines with humor and bittersweet sadness for a work that shifts tones quickly.
"That’s what’s so attractive to me, and will be to audiences — it goes from genre to genre to genre, sometimes in the space of three or four minutes. Part of it’s a fairy tale, part of it’s pure farce; part of it is just devastating domestic tragedy," said Henry.
"The challenge is to let it go from one to another; to let it slide into whatever’s happening and fulfill what the playwright is looking to do."
HENRY SAID LYNSKEY is an asset, since her performance as Iris holds the show together. But the work of Kathleen Coons as her mother; Michael Russotto as the mysterious stranger; Bobby Ross as her father; and Susan Ross as a family friend named Rose is just as essential.
"It’s not so much about [Lynskey] holding the stage on her own, because she doesn’t have to do that. The other four are all very, very potent talents. When you see actors at this skill level playing off of each other, it’s like a great musical ensemble," said Henry. "Combined, they have over 100 years experience on stage. You know you can get out of their way."
Working with Henry are designers Nicholas Vaughan (set), John Burkland (lighting), Williams Burns (sound) and Deb Sivigny (costumes); Elaine Randolph is the Equity stage manager. The director said they’re staging a play that goes beyond usual family drama fare.
"I don’t like domestic dramas that you might see on TV just as you’d see them in the theater. I’m not interested in that kind of theater," said Henry.
Neither is Lynskey, who relishes the play’s shifts from comedy to drama to even some political commentary.
"On the event of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it has to be political," she said. "But it feels like the real atomic war is within the family. It sets up this relationship that’s exploding. You have the world in crisis, a family in crisis, and this child trying to keep it all together, looking for the one thing that maybe could.
"How absurd is it that a goldfish could save the world?"