The Kids Aren't Alright

Based loosely on a true story, Jason Stuart’s one-woman play, Washing Machine, presents several perspectives from those involved in the case of five year-old girl Rebecca “Hope” Wagner who, while her mother used a nearby payphone, mysteriously drowned in a washing machine at a Virginia laundromat three years ago. The range of perspectives, verbal or otherwise, include those of the little girl, her mother, a young playmate (theorizing that Rebecca may have been stolen by the fictional “Birdman”), her insecure and painfully self-conscious pubescent brother, the Russian owner of the laundromat, a predictably detached insurance adjuster charged with determining the monetary worth of the girl’s life, and the old man who had used the machine prior to the incident, losing the coins which somehow later activated the machine when the child climbed into it.

Akiko Kosaka’s set is stunning in its simplicity. Most of the play’s action takes place inside a circular plastic structure, replete with patterned holes, resembling the inside of a commercial washing machine. The center of this construction serves as the vortex of character vantage points, all acted ably by the versatile Dana Berger. Plastic bags filled with water hang from the structure and other parts of the stage, representing the attractive nuisance of the machine’s watery recesses for the little girl.

Ben Kato employs a host of innovative lighting techniques to illustrate the characters’ confusion, the machine’s motion, and to help the slight and unimposing Berger transform into a range of personalities. Kato’s lighting works seamlessly with the sound design of Elizabeth Rhodes. Harsh and amplified clicks of the electric machine’s various cycles indicate jerking character shifts. Like the washing machine, the airtight doors of which shut one out (or in this case, in) until a cycle completes, the action moves quickly—a new character appears just as you’re processing the words of the previous one. With some exceptions, lighting and music are generally compatible.

Mr. Stuart is obviously a Who fan. “Pure n’ Easy” and “Getting in Tune” are among the pre-performance house songs. Ms. Berger wears a Who t-shirt throughout the play, and the girl’s mother talks guiltily about wanting to smoke cigarettes and listen to “Baba O’Riley” rather than attend to motherly concerns, even firing off a round of Pete Townshend windmills as she speaks.

“Baba O’Riley”—all five minutes and ten seconds of it—returns at the end of the play, its jumpy and frenetic ending mimicking the confusion inside the washing machine. It’s a somewhat unfortunate choice—the song has been so diluted by its use as the opening theme for CSI-NY that here it unintentionally makes the girl’s struggles resemble a moribund music video. If a Who song must be used, may I suggest the more obscure “In a Hand or a Face,” with its continual refrain: “I am going round and round”?

Under Michael Chamberlin’s taut direction, Ms. Berger deftly shifts characters in the blink of an eye and yanks us, often mesmerized, along with her. Ms. Berger starred in the first production of Washing Machine) last summer at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, and she has clearly honed her rapid transformations down to the nanosecond.

Unlike its characters, Washing Machine doesn’t point fingers. From the brother who dares the girl into the machine, to the mother who disappears, to the laundromat owner who knows that the machine has a mechanical problem, everyone, including society, is complicit in the death of this young girl. The play asks one tough question of its audience, and it's enough: How can we become so irreparably consumed with our own petty issues that we can forever lose track of an innocent child?

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