How lucky we are that Douglas Williams lives and works in Philadelphia. The fast-rising young writer, Azuka Theatre’s playwright in residence, has delivered some of the most memorable (and memorably complete) world premieres seen on local stages over the past decade. SHIP, at the Drake in an Azuka production through March 15, continues this streak of excellence.
As was true of S-heads (produced by Azuka in 2017) and Bon Iver Fights a Bear (Philly Fringe, 2018), Williams excels at considering heavy subjects through precise, introspective character study, with healthy doses of humor and an oddball energy.
SHIP explores addiction, isolation, and the profoundly unmoored ethos of the millennial generation, but it does so without calling attention to these topics in an obvious way. The comedy, and the pathos, emerge from the playwright’s genuine affection for the misfits who populate his quirky world.
That world is Mystic, Conn. — a waterside town that feels decidedly landlocked and limited for Nell (Annie Fang), fresh out of rehab and staring down an uncertain future.
She longs for a job guiding tours at the local seaport museum, even though she’s hopelessly inept. And she finds herself drawn to Jeremiah (Michael A. Stahler), another rudderless twentysomething, whose claim to notoriety is an attempt to grow the world’s longest fingernails.
Williams takes this premise, which could easily be played for broad, lowbrow laughs, and uses it to probe the need for self-modification, extraordinary achievement, and escapism that so many people crave.
Nell, who turned to drugs as an escape from the stultifying sameness of her suburban existence, is attracted to Jeremiah’s peculiar mission, which refashions a biological defect as an enviable attribute. She also considers him a refuge from reality, where she contends with a dying mother and a sister (Alison Ormsby, by turns stern and spirited) whose trust she hasn’t fully earned.
Jeremiah remains a fascinating enigma, his personality alternating between a sad-sack slacker and a willing sideshow attraction besotted by the prospect of fame. Again, though, Williams delves deeper. He supplies the character with a heartbreaking monologue about the pros and cons of leaning into your weirdness, which Stahler performs with wrenching conviction.
Opposites attract, but sometimes so do mirror images: Nell and Jeremiah, who find an odd comfort in each other, are bruised and broken in many of the same ways.
Their awkward yet endearing tête-à-tête unfolds under Kevin Glaccum’s steady, sympathetic direction, which lets the comedy breathe and the serious elements gain an appropriate emotional weight.
SHIP is Azuka’s ninth New Professionals Production, in which the cast and creative team are comprised of recent college graduates. The fine acting from Fang (University of Pennsylvania), Ormsby (University of the Arts), and Stahler (Temple) testifies to the quality of local training programs.
Kevin Hoover’s splintery maritime set is on par with anything I’ve seen from veteran designers in town.
This production also continues the company’s pay-what-you-decide campaign, so there’s no ticket price you can cite as an excuse not to go. But most of all, you should see SHIP to introduce — or reacquaint — yourself with Williams’ singular voice. This play may be in its maiden voyage, but his talent is already at full sail.
Through March 15 at the Proscenium at the Drake, Azuka Theatre, 302 S. Hicks St.
Tickets: Pay what you decide after seeing the play.