You don’t have to be a close friend of Freud to believe that dreams can be a kind of core sample of one’s closest-held hopes and fears — or know that they’re often driven by a feel of the familiar transformed.
Both of those elements figure deeply into Georgette Kelly’s beautifully realized “Ballast,” a play that weaves a series of dream sequences into the dramas of its characters’ waking lives.
At its heart, “Ballast” — now getting a smartly conceived world-premiere production at Diversionary Theatre — is all about transformation, and the way it can stir up subconscious but highly volatile emotions.
The play focuses on two pairs of people who each are navigating one partner’s gender transition, although in very different ways.
Grace (Dana Aliya Levinson) is a pastor who’s grappling with resistance from the church as well as the misgivings of her wife, Zoe (Jacque Wilke), a sympathetic soul who still can’t help but miss the man she married.
Xavier (Maxton Miles Baeza) is a high-school student who is finally finding the full expression of his soul as a young man. But he doesn’t feel embraced by those around him (his mom scoffs at the “tomboy phase” affecting the person she still knows as her daughter) — save for his lifelong friend, the free-spirited Savannah (Jennifer Paredes).
The age differences between the two couples reveal a generational split in grasping the meaning of gender transition: Savannah is comfortable with the idea of a fluid sexual identity, while Zoe is so conflicted that she can’t bear to kiss her own spouse in public.
It’s the kind of dramatic setup that could feel schematic — a way to deliver some kind of “social issue” lesson with the characters serving as convenient props.
But “Ballast” is anything but that, thanks to Kelly’s clearly genuine understanding of the people she’s writing about, and Diversionary executive artistic chief Matt M. Morrow’s sensitive and dynamic direction. And there’s not a false note in the finely tuned work of his capable cast.
Morrow also handles gracefully the frequent transitions between the dream and waking worlds. Each character has distinctive dreams, but Zoe’s are the most prominent: They have her receiving a series of flying lessons from a patient but sometimes exasperated aviator played by Skyler Sullivan, who (along with Dana Case) ably takes on a series of ensemble roles.
In contrast to those gentle, often wistful interludes, Grace’s dreams are very fire-and-brimstone, shot through with religious imagery that underlines the character’s crisis of faith. Xavier, meanwhile, has nightmares of a mocking alter ego goading him to hurt himself, while Savannah’s gently nonsensical dreams are mostly about Xavier, with whom she feels increasingly close.
The episodic structure means scenes are jarringly short on occasion, but the spectacular projections by Tara Knight, coupled with Sherrice Mojgani’s vivid lighting and Emily Jankowski’s crisp sound, keeps things clicking on Ron Logan’s austere but attractive set.
Diversionary’s commitment to authenticity with “Ballast” extended to casting transgender actors (both from out of town) in the roles of Grace and Xavier. Both are excellent; the New York-based Levinson’s affecting portrayal is laced with sadness and dry humor, while Baeza (who’s from L.A.) brings a restless energy to his complex role.
San Diego’s own Wilke and Paredes (who seems to be quickly becoming the most sought-after actor in town) also do some of their very best work. Wilke makes Zoe’s pain achingly manifest, and she gives “Ballast” an emotional center, while Paredes injects a winning sense of lightness and hope, even as Savannah can’t help but behave badly.
Above all else, “Ballast” confronts a complicated (and, sadly, still controversial) topic and explores it in arrestingly human terms. Trippy dreams aside, the real power of this play is in its feel of the real.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 4.
Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights.
Tickets: $15-$45 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 220-0097