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Exploring a Mysterious Past in ‘An Unbuilt Life’ at Washington Stage Guild

After almost half a century of marriage, Agatha Ganner is faced with navigating the world on her own. Amid the usual tasks of settling an estate, her late husband’s art collection becomes a perplexing enigma when she uncovers a peculiar painting hidden deep in his workshop. Collaborating with a keen art history graduate student, the quest to trace the origins of this piece evolves into a consuming fascination for both of them. However, as this seemingly harmless pastime begins to unravel the life she believed she knew and the past she thought was familiar, Agatha is left pondering her next steps.

The premiere of An Unbuilt Life, written by Elizabeth DeSchryver and directed by Steven Carpenter, delves into a woman’s journey of discovery, leading her into a shadowy realm of art forgeries, Nazi art theft, and the complex notion of retribution after decades of suffering. Set to grace the Washington Stage Guild and conclude their 202324 season, this mystery caters to art enthusiasts and those intrigued by the excitement of exploration, revelation, and the relentless pursuit of truth, regardless of the consequences.

Susan Holliday takes on the role of Agatha Ganner, while JC Payne portrays the eager Scott Bertram in ‘An Unbuilt Life.’ The narrative unfolds as Agatha, previously shielded from certain aspects of life deemed too overwhelming for her delicate nature by the men around her, grapples with confusion to foster personal growth. Holliday’s portrayal of Agatha transitions from a passive observer of life to a woman embracing her identity and seizing control of her future. As she confronts the newfound revelations conflicting with her established truths, Agatha faces the dilemma of atoning for the sins of others.

Assisting Agatha in unraveling the mystery is the enthusiastic Scott Bertram, brought to life by JC Payne. A young and optimistic art history graduate student specializing in Dutch masters, Scott exudes hope and vitality. Unencumbered by moral quandaries, perhaps due to his youth or his idealistic view of the world, Payne’s portrayal of Scott motivates Agatha to pursue the truth and rectify any injustices within their capacity, emphasizing the importance of unwavering dedication to truth in scholarly pursuits.

Contrasting Scott’s exuberance is his superior and Agatha’s late husband’s former business partner, Paul Carmichael, played by David Bryan Jackson. Tasked with overseeing the auction of the remaining art collection, Jackson embodies a cynical and guarded persona, eager to swiftly conclude the proceedings. With an air of elitism, Paul holds back pertinent information to maintain control over the situation, portraying a character who is shrewd and calculating.

The narrative of ‘An Unbuilt Life’ is brought to life by the dedicated design team, including Scenic Designer Joseph B. Musumeci Jr., Resident Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows, Resident Costume Designer Sigrid Johannesdottir, Sound Designer David Bryan Jackson, and Production Stage Manager Elaine Randolph. The intricate set design captures Agatha’s refined yet traditional lifestyle through floral motifs and antique furnishings, juxtaposed with her late husband’s modern art preferences. The lighting design sets the tone with subtle blue uplighting, symbolizing curiosity, imagination, freedom, and ethical dilemmas. Additionally, the seamless coordination between stagehands Daniel Interiano and Luca Maggs, alongside the actors, adds depth to the storytelling, making them integral parts of the narrative progression.

In a world marked by interconnectedness and complexity, the pursuit of truth is both facilitated and complicated. ‘An Unbuilt Life’ prompts reflection on whether it is possible to deconstruct a life built on falsehoods and deception. The play raises thought-provoking questions about rectifying past wrongs at the expense of present losses, navigating the intricate interplay of legacy, choices, and self-discovery. Audiences are invited to explore these themes at the Washington Stage Guild, where the play unfolds, offering answers to those curious enough to seek them.

An Unbuilt Life by Elizabeth DeSchryver, directed by Steven Carpenter, features a talented cast and dedicated design team who bring this intriguing narrative to life on stage.