Featuring pastors, cowboys, shootouts and the tango, the new play “Melancholy Echo” was the author Robert Alexander Wray’s response to feelings of displacement caused by the pandemic.
“It’s looking for a way forward,” says Wray of his play that’s set in an apocalyptic, dystopian version of the world. “How do we go forward into this new dimension, whatever it is? How do we find healing and how do we find a way out, and, along the way, appreciate the life that we lead, appreciate the stories that we tell each other?”
Though “Echo” has been read publicly, published in periodicals and participated in playwrighting contests, the production hitting the stage at the Firehouse later this week is the play’s first.
“It’s basically about a pastor who decides one day to quit the church and goes on a sort of surreal pilgrimage to map the inner workings of his mind. Along the way, he discovers this weird, mysterious notebook filled with story fragments, and the story fragments compel him to want to complete the story himself,” says Wray, who’s been based out of Charlottesville for roughly the past two decades. “The story actually belongs to, or is the creation of, this mysterious couple named Phoenix and Dove.”
Eventually, these characters’ lives intersect in what Wray calls an “over the top way.”
Wray says his plays “tend towards dark comedies. [Most explore] longing, issues of love. There’s often a lot of death in my plays for some reason. I guess that makes it more dramatic, raises the stakes automatically. Just issues of the human heart and what it means to be human.”
Director Todd LaBelle said he was captivated by “Melancholy Echo” at a staged reading the Firehouse held a year and a half ago as part of the theater’s “1st Drafts and Bagels” series, where audiences and theater professionals take part in readings of short new plays.
“At the end of the reading, I was just so enthralled with this idea of a story within a story within a story that I found myself inspired to add movement and music to really encapsulate all the different facets of storytelling,” says LaBelle, adding that as the show was originally conceived as a one-person show, it’s written more like a story than a play.
“Robert has done a really great job of writing a unique piece that explores slices of life in an imaginative way,” LaBelle says. “I think that people will find themselves relating to the play, coming out of the pandemic.”
In the show, Mikaela Craft plays Phoenix, who the local actress calls “young, hip, cool. She’s romantic.”
“My part of the show follows a couple that’s been stuck inside during the pandemic and just gets to the point of boredom where they decided that they should write a story together,” Craft says. “For me, it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves to entertain ourselves, to keep ourselves sane, to make sense of our lives in the larger sense.”
Craft says audiences should expect to have their sense of normalcy upended.
“It took me several readthroughs of the show and into when we started rehearsing to catch all of the little details and all of the little Easter eggs, if you will, that give you a sense of where this story’s headed. Also, the story plays with time,” Craft says. “It’s not a linear story. It’s more like moments, and in a sense, it doesn’t matter when these moments happen.”
Remarking on an imaginative show that’s got chase scenes, a western shootout, tango dancing and a rebel cowboy priest, the playwright says audiences should anticipate a journey unlike any other.
“The play is spiced with magical realism, so come prepared to have your sense of disbelief suspended,” Wray says. “I wouldn’t go so far as to take a hit of acid before you see the show, but maybe that helps. Maybe having a drink or two beforehand will help prepare you for the strange ride it is.”
“Melancholy Echo” runs Oct. 28-30 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For more information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call (804) 355-2001.