Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Mother Road, The King's Speech, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss You Like Hell

Alyssa Keegan, Anna Ishida, James Whalen,
Jennifer Dundas, Jeff Biehl, Tom Story,
and Jon Hudson Odom

Photo by Teresa Castracane
The concern in writing about Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017, receiving its U.S. premiere at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is that the play is so packed with ideas, most of them incisive and on point, it feels like too much to take in with a single viewing. Director Saheem Ali streamlines the action as much as possible, working with a talented and totally invested ensemble cast.

Anne Washburn's play is an epic disguised at first as a domestic comedy. It's early in 2017 and a group of friends has gathered at the rustic farmhouse owned by Jools (Anna Ishida) and Lawrence (James Whalen). These educated New Yorkers, away from cellphone towers and with no access to television, had hoped for the relaxation of seeing the full moon reflected on a lake—and a sumptuous meal at a nearby restaurant—when a snowstorm strands them with only themselves, their limited resources, and their conversation.

While Jim (Jeff Biehl) and Teresa (Alyssa Keegan) arrive after attending the birth of their grandchild ("It shouldn't take just a minute for your life to change," she says), the general topic is the 2016 election and what is likely to follow. Louis (Jon Hudson Odom) is haunted by a specific lie he remembers Trump telling during one of the Republican debates, to the irritation of his partner Andrew (Tom Story); Allie (Jennifer Dundas) criticizes the others for not being as politically active before the election as she believes she was. They try to understand the voters who love Trump: one compares his charisma to the Reverend Jim Jones, whose People's Temple was beloved by political leaders in San Francisco before it self-destructed in Jonestown. Another inside-joke side topic is whether theater can facilitate political awareness (Washburn has written adaptations of plays by Euripides).

Periodically, other voices turn up. Mark (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) tells about being adopted from Kenya as a child and his experiences as the only black member of his family (and, often, his society). The guests worry that the only people who are truly innocent are those who don't yet know about the temptations of money and power. And, with shifts in Arnulfo Maldonado's deceptive scenic design, Colin K. Bills' unearthly lighting design, and Jared Mezzocchi's projections, Washburn occasionally moves her vision into the realm of nightmarish hallucinations. The Bengsons have composed an eerie score for voices, manipulated by sound designer Palmer Hefferan.

Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 runs through March 8, 2020, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-393-3939 or visit

By Anne Washburn
Directed by Saheem Ali
A co-production with The Public Theater, New York City

Jim: Jeff Biehl
Allie: Jennifer Dundas
Jools: Anna Ishida
Mark: Mikéah Ernest Jennings
Teresa: Alyssa Keegan
Louis: Jon Hudson Odom
Andrew: Tom Story
Lawrence: James Whalen