Cassie Workman in 'Aberdeen.'

Cassie Workman in Aberdeen.
Photo: Jake Bush

When the SoHo Playhouse isn’t kitted out with a full set, you can really feel its age. The building is almost 200 years old and has been some form of theater since 1922 (Edward Albee ran the place in the 1960s, and the basement was a Prohibition speakeasy). It’s a little grungy, and it probably houses a ghost or two — which makes it the perfect setting for Aberdeen, the Australian performer Cassie Workman’s intimate, ardent epic of a poem. Grunge and ghosts are, after all, what Workman is here to talk about. Aberdeen is the story of her fallen hero, Kurt Cobain; of her journey to his drizzly, gray smudge of a hometown; and of their trip together through time — Cassie and Cobain’s ghost, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes with Cassie in heartbroken pursuit, pleading with the rock star, the addict, the broken kid from the dead logging city, not to abandon her, to change history and live.

“This is going to sound crazy,” Workman says, leaning in and widening her black-rimmed eyes beneath the shaggy black curtain of her bangs, “but just give me 55 minutes to explain, / I am standing in ankle deep water, in Aberdeen, / holding hands with Kurt Cobain.” Workman has won awards as a comic, and there’s a sly humor wound throughout Aberdeen’s shadows. There could have been a more straightforward monologue here, but instead, she’s taken a bigger, braver leap by setting her story entirely in rhyming verse. Alone on an empty stage, unmiked and in her stocking feet, she’s participating in tradition that feels at once vulnerable and bold, somehow both quaint and transcendently grand. It’s the salon recitation, and it depends on total sincerity, unmediated dramatic passion, and an opera singer’s reverence for the tragic.

It also depends on a flair for ballad meter: “It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea…” Or, for Workman: “1210 East First Street, Aberdeen, / rots on the corner of a sad, flooded row, / And I jealously wish that I could have seen / the things these empty rooms must know.” Even when Workman’s lines intentionally stretch the ballad form’s boundaries, it’s still the perfect container for her task: Its iambs pulse with our heartbeats, calling up the throb of Kobain’s own lyrics, and its yearning, mourning melodies conjure shades of sunken ships, lost battles, and long dead loves. Listening to her render a world of “mud and misery” into fervent verse—“ashtrays in full bloom,” a bridge’s “womb of cold concrete,” “clumps of burning memory [falling] like dying cigarettes”—I found myself thinking of no one so much as L.M. Montgomery’s soaring-hearted heroine of Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley. In that red-haired orphan, the red-lipped, tattooed Workman has a kindred spirit. For both, poetry and its performance are a conduit, an open channel up into the cosmic through which beauty and despair—equally seen, equally honored—can flow.

In a way, Aberdeen might be thought of as a ’90s child’s answer to one of the world’s oldest and most famous ballads: We don’t know who wrote “The Unquiet Grave,” but we still have its story of the dead girl who, after her lover has grieved her for “a twelvemonth and a day,” tells him, gently, to stop. Eventually, Cassie and the shade of Kurt find themselves at the inevitable — standing outside the singer’s Seattle mansion, watching him carry the Remington shotgun into the greenhouse. “You filled our heads with hope, and in your own image made us,” Cassie weeps. “And then you checked out, and left us here … You betrayed us.”

In the saturated Northwestern gloom, Workman articulates a striking vision of death not as a desert or an abyss, but as a kind of flooded and moldering house — a wet, seeping place that “leaks into [the] living world” until you find yourself wading in the murk, feet pruny and freezing. Too much intimacy with it leaves you damp and shivering, only partly alive, “standing in a doorway, one foot in and one foot out.” Ultimately, it’s Kurt’s ghost who has to give Cassie, soaked and slipping towards the edge, permission to get out of the rain. All the love and time travel in the world won’t save her hero, but Workman’s love for him might still save her. Glowing through the chilly layers of grunge and sorrow, Aberdeen has a luminous heart. It grants grace to all who have stood and are standing on the watery threshold, and it offers a courageous reminder of the beauty on this side of the door.

That precarious in-between space is also receiving thoughtful consideration in the small upstairs theater at the Connelly, where the director-producer Jack Serio is giving the London-born playwright Ruby Thomas’s The Animal Kingdom its U.S. premiere. Serio recently persuaded a lot of very starry, very talented actors to do Uncle Vanya in a loft. The much-decorated director David Cromer played the titular tormented estate manager in that project, and in The Animal Kingdom he rejoins Serio to portray a man not at the churning center of the crisis but at its edge, tapping his foot and keeping his mouth shut, resisting the pull towards emotional responsibility and revelation with every muscle in his body.

Tasha Lawrence in The Animal Kingdom.
Photo: Emilio Madrid

Thomas’s play has the kind of intentionally limited container that’s built for almost anthropological character observation. Like Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves or Ruby Spiegel’s Dry Land or even Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, The Animal Kingdom picks a single location and gives us snapshots of a group of people playing out installments of the same scenario over time. The formula is good for plays based around things like sports practice, classes, or rehearsals — here, the circumstance is family therapy. Sam (Uly Schlesinger, bravely embodying the kind of anguish that gnaws the skin and wracks the bones) is in a recovery clinic after a suicide attempt. His divorced parents, Rita and Tim (Tasha Lawrence and Cromer), and his 18-year-old sister, Sofia (Lily McInerny), are joining him and a counselor named Daniel (the wonderful and legitimately soothing Calvin Leon Smith) to attempt what might be the impossible: facing each other, facing themselves, talking, and, perhaps hardest of all, listening.

Underneath the cool LED glow of a large lightbox and trapped in a tight circle of plastic institutional chairs, Serio’s actors have no escape. The audience looms on three sides of their enclosure; on the fourth is the ominous black wall of a two-way mirror. “There’s no one there, don’t worry,” Daniel reassures Sam as the play begins. “We use it for a different kind of therapy. Can be hard for one therapist to pick up on all the, you know … dynamics. Little looks and things …. But there’s no one there now.” Not on that side of the footlights, maybe, but of course Thomas’s title has already cued us up to our role here: Like Sam—a vegan zoology student who loves and suffers over animals, protecting and comforting himself with a cocoon of facts about them—we’re going to be keeping a sharp eye out for the details, behaviors, and rituals of this subspecies of mammals. Domestic specimens may be wilder than they appear.

Thomas has built a solid, empathetic play, and Serio is skilled at the kind of intimate, actor-focused psychological choreography that it demands. (The buzziest scene in the “Loft Vanya” was an almost whispered, candlelit tête-à-tête between Will Brill’s Astrov and Marin Ireland’s Sonya, and that tiny flame did indeed generate a lot of heat.) He’s getting sensitive performances from his actors, committed and unshowy, from Schlesinger’s barbed torment to the way McInerny’s face crumples into a wet, red knot as Sofia finally admits how furious she is with her brother. Cromer hardens his natural restraint into a woefully familiar strain of frozen masculinity, and Lawrence takes Rita—Sam’s motor-mouthed, flowy-trousered doula of a mother—right to the brink of caricature without falling in. Rita is the type of person who wears Birkenstocks, loudly and proudly bakes her own bread, and refuses tap water because of the chemicals but rolls her eyes and flaps her hands when her child reminds her that he’s not gay, he’s queer.

But, without getting too Freudian, Thomas also reminds us that none of these suffering creatures are—or are only—types. We get glimpses of how everyone in Sam’s family has both hurt and been hurt, and even the spikiest among them eventually reveal a little bit of belly. That the play’s softening arc doesn’t feel forced has much to do with Smith’s beautifully centered and centering performance as Daniel. “Why are you so nice?” Sam asks his therapist, but of course, it isn’t niceness; it’s something much more complex, something that has a spine as well as a heart. Like Cassie Workman, Daniel is bearing witness to something few can bear to look at. Each one is sitting with the human, the animal, the ghost, and offering all three a rigorous, fundamental kind of love.

Aberdeen is at the Soho Playhouse through February 11.

The Animal Kingdom is at the Connelly Theater Upstairs through February 10.

Quiet Obsessions, Unplugged: Aberdeen and The Animal Kingdom