A child goes briefly AWOL; her parents fear the worst—but all is not what it seems in “Oblivion,” the comedy by playwright Carly Mensch, a television writer best known for her work on “Weeds,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Orange is the New Black” and most recently, “GLOW.”
But theatergoers have begun to expect the unexpected from the aptly-named Unexpected Stage Company (USC), which is mounting its latest production in the Fireside Room of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda. It’s a 40-seat venue they’re hoping will allow audiences to feel like they’re part of the family as the fun (and food for thought) unfolds onstage.
“It’s an intimate space,” explained Rachel Stroud-Goodrich, who founded USC with her husband and co-artistic-producing director Christopher Goodrich. “We have two rows of seating on either side—it’s like a runway down the center, so audience members are close to the action. It’s going to feel experiential to be there, so close to the actors, and we’re really excited.”
California native Stroud-Goodrich said she started out as a singer, majoring in Spanish and economics with a minor in music at Bowdoin College, then studying music and musical theater as a graduate student at New York University. “I was coming at it from the angle of being a performer,” she said. “I really loved that, but after a while it’s just a hard lifestyle to maintain if you want stability in terms of having a family.”
When she married Goodrich, a Watkins Mill High School alumnus with a BFA in acting from NYU and an MFA in poetry from New England College, she moved from preforming to the administrative side of theater. The couple had met doing summer stock in Vermont, but their desire to have a home and raise children overruled the lure of the road.
“Two years after we moved down here, we started Unexpected Stage,” said Stroud-Goodrich, who juggles a full-time non-theater job with her role as a mother of three small children and her artistic director chores. (She’s also understudying a role in “Oblivion” and serves as choir director at her synagogue.) “It takes a lot of effort—it’s wonderful and I love it, but it’s exhausting!”
The exhausting experience of parenting gave the company its name. “We always had it in the back of our minds that it would be nice to start a company because we really liked storytelling,” recalled Goodrich. “So, we moved down here, and we had a child, Mayzie, who is turning 8 this month.”
When they had a hard time getting Mayzie to sleep in her crib, the couple took a page from the Parenting 101 handbook and drove around with the baby in her car seat. “We ended up driving around Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg, praying she would stop crying,” he said. “We found this little unused stage in the park under a canopy of trees. That was the ‘unexpected stage.’ We just stumbled upon it—there it was!”
They ended up putting on their first show there, and from that hidden stage grew a company with a mission to honor “the intricacies and intimacies of the complete human experience.”
“Rachel and I run it; we have a board of 10 or 11 and that’s the core group of people,” he said. “We audition for each show; hire designers and actors and production managers…I don’t know that I ever imagined what would be the day-to-day of running a theater company. It’s been pretty fantastic: very challenging and extremely rewarding. Despite all the grueling work, we keep coming back to it.”
That’s where “Oblivion” comes in. Goodrich, who teaches English and theater at Sherwood High School, said he and Stroud-Goodrich “really like new work. “It’s not that we’re against the more ‘mainstay’ productions,” he explained. “But we have to be interested in a story, in the meaning behind it. We really love to give voice to the voiceless, to put those ‘unseen’ people on a pedestal.”
Two years ago, he said, USC did a production of “Romeo and Juliet”—where the star-crossed lovers were seventy-somethings living in a senior citizens home. “That’s interesting to us,” he said. “That story hadn’t been told.” They also did “A Wake for Jacob Marley,” which Goodrich wrote from the perspective of the other characters in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” They love a good twist, a smart story, and that’s what “Oblivion” provides.
“It’s about what it’s like to raise a 16-year-old,” said Goodrich, who is directing the production—and knows something about daughters and teenagers from his roles as dad and high school teacher. “She’s attempting to cut the cord and become an individual and figure out her own interests—and this is the struggle the parents have with that.”
What the parents (Mindy Shaw as mom Pam and Zach Brewster-Geisz as dad Dixon) figure out early in the play is that their daughter Julie (Ruthie Rado) has converted to fundamentalist Christianity. “They flip out,” he said. “So here you have these people who consider themselves extremely open-minded. They happen to be Jewish, but her exploring a religion is much worse than anything they could’ve ever imagined.
“That’s where the tension in the play comes from.”
And the humor. Goodrich pointed out that playwright created a script that he calls “really smart and witty and quick and vulnerable.
“Exploring any idea in order to figure out human behavior, human motivation, is what we’re interested in,” he added. “We want to make theater for everyone. We just find stories that we love to tell.”
And their audiences expect nothing less.
Unexpected Stage Company presents Carly Mensch’s “Oblivion” through Aug. 6 at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 6301 River Road, Bethesda. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, ranging from $10 to $27.50, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.
Trailer: “Oblivion,” by Carly Mensch