Playwright Charly Evon Simpson sets, and surmounts, a steep challenge for her latest play it’s not a trip it’s a journey (★★★★☆), centering the four-woman dramedy around a character who can’t put into words the pain she’s feeling, yet talks plenty in trying to make sense of it all.
In the throes of a crisis perhaps too profound to be reduced to a few sentences, June, a seemingly stable and strong New Yorker, speaks in abstractions and ellipses. She plucks analogies from wherever she can, searching for an image or expression that might help her understand her pain, so she can in turn help her friends understand what’s consuming her.
June’s struggle to articulate her feelings comes through in the clipped, pointed, often very funny, dialogue spoken between her and the three dear friends — Willie, Frankie, and Rain — whom she invites on a girls’ road trip to the Grand Canyon.
June needs the journey. A beautiful thing about the friendship portrayed here is that her girls don’t question whether their support is warranted. They jump onboard. Still, Simpson gives all four a good reason for wanting to get away, ride the highway, and reconnect with each other and themselves.
Each actor in the balanced ensemble cast of director Nicole A. Watson’s world-premiere production at Round House Theatre has their individual narrative to travel, within the collective journey of four single Black women on the road. All four etch characters well worth getting to know over two hours and an intermission.
As June, Erin Margaret Pettigrew does great just to distinguish the character’s halting, considered way of speaking as an expression of the character’s inner turmoil, rather than a glitch in her performance. Pettigrew puts purpose behind the script’s staccato rhythms, as well as the mounting pressure threatening June’s mental health.
She and Watson bring the character believably close to the edge of losing her grip, then through a well-earned catharsis, and towards a realistic, if not necessarily gratifying, resolution. The plot steers others in this sisterhood of traveling rants towards clearer conclusions.
Cristina Pitter’s Frankie and Dezi Bing’s Willie feel fully fleshed-out in their respective depictions as a tough nugget with a tender heart, and a trans woman with a worldly sense of humor and romance.
Afua Busia’s boho Rain leans closer to type, but supplies her share of the show’s laughs. References to the unnamed ex-man in Rain’s life are always accompanied by a gesture of hand-waving exasperation — until the gesture itself is all that’s needed to know, Oh, him.
The direction and cast capture compelling facets of friendship in the foursome’s shorthand way of communicating, in the honest admission that they’re not all equally close, in the interstitial dance breaks conveying their girls’ trip glee. And they turn a brief set-piece of Frankie learning to drive into a fabulous high-point of physical comedy and control.
Watson and company set the more serious scenes with a sure hand, as well, as in the way all ambient noise of the desert night drops away to silence just before a potent kiss.
Dancing across scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III’s evocative, sloping strip of highway, or holding onto each other for dear life after a friend recounts unimaginable trauma, June, Frankie, Willie, and Rain all show us something about those feelings that are hard to put into words.
Although, the esteemed playwright often finds precisely the words to convey the friends’ lived experience — most memorably with one character’s declaration, a fitting mantra for those who know it to be true, “I am more than what easily comes to mind.”
it’s not a trip it’s a journey runs in repertory with We declare you a terrorist… through May 8 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $41-$56. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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