by SOPHIE KERMAN
“I got one! I got one!”
For all of the many reasons we might say we go to the theater, at the heart of it, we all just want a good story. At least that is the argument behind The K of D, a play which takes us back to our very earliest experiences of theater – the confusing grown-up conversations overheard after bedtime, the seemingly senseless cruelties we witnessed and later replicated, the whispered speculations among children trying to make sense of the world. And as it turns out, those attempts at storytelling, the attempts to connect the dots, haven’t lost their appeal one bit.
Set in a small town in Ohio, this deceptively humble play follows a cast of sixteen characters as they try to understand the tragic death of adolescent Jamie McGraw. The catch is that all sixteen of these individuals are played by Renata Friedman, whose lanky body morphs before our eyes into the early-blooming Becky Ray Voss or the barrel-chested Johnny Whistler. It helps that Friedman is extremely interesting to look at, with her long limbs and sharp angles, but she does not rest solely on her physicality to transition between characters. She has worked with playwright Laura Schellhardt since the play’s inception in 2006, and her years of immersion in the world of Saint Marys, Ohio are visible in her lightning-fast transformations across genders, ages and personalities.
As in the best of storytelling, “The K of D” creates a captivating experience by peppering the tale with just the right amount of detail. Schellhardt’s language is vivid without being hokey, and if the multitude of characters is hard to keep straight for the first five minutes, Friedman’s deft characterizations quickly put things right. Matt Starritt‘s sound cues are so precise that you can almost see the flip of a notebook page or the croak of a frog. And the set (co-designed by L.B. Morse and director Braden Abraham) is beautifully simple and absolutely authentic, with a decrepit old dock transporting the audience into a world where the line between the real and the imaginary is crooked and full of gaps.
Of course, technical ability counts for nothing if you can’t tell a good story – and thankfully, Schellhardt and Friedman tell a story that’s absolutely killer. At the heart of it all is Charlotte McGraw, the twin sister of the deceased, who is cursed – or blessed? – with the kiss of death at the moment of her brother’s demise. But although Charlotte is the presumed main character, she stopped speaking on the day of the accident. Rather than a first-person narration, then, the tale spirals eerily around her, unfolding through the speculations of a “pack” of teenagers and the preoccupations of the McGraw parents.
With Charlotte serving as the mute center, “The K of D” tells us just as much about the act of storytelling as about the legend itself. Both Abraham and Friedman have been inspired to revisit this play again and again, perhaps because – despite the play’s apparent simplicity – there seem to be an endless number of layers to peel away. Where is the line between imagination and wishful thinking? voyeurism and curiosity? chilling violence and fitting revenge? This gripping story emerges at just that mysterious moment when the appetite to know turns into the need to create. It may be easy to be a skeptic – but “The K of D” fills our deepest, darkest desire to believe.