Wendy Sims-Moten eyes her host, a stolen Nkisi. (Ellen K. Anderson photo)

Forests are always mystical places in folklore and myth, filled with magical happenings.

Directed by Rena Heinrich and written by founder and artistic director Ellen K. Anderson, In the Forest of Detroit embraces this tradition with a funny and fantastical story of mothers, daughters, secrets, spells and spirits.

The play is Dramatic Women’s newest offering, and it runs through May 23 at Center Stage Theater at Paseo Nuevo in downtown Santa Barbara.

This gem is anchored by Santa Barbara stage veteran Leslie Gangl Howe’s stellar performance as Anne, a woman hiding out from her present in her past. At the opening of the play, we see her enter her empty ancestral home in a largely abandoned neighborhood of Detroit bearing a mysterious objet d’art found in the trunk of her car.

Her best friend, Carol, is understandably distressed at having just been questioned regarding the disappearance of said item from the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she is a docent — and even more so when she arrives and finds it in Anne’s possession. Lisa Gates is colorfully larger than life in this role, embracing the breadth of the character fully.

As their respective daughters, also lifelong friends, Terry Li and Caroline DeLoreto are engaging as they grapple with their missing mothers, what to do with Grandma Trudy, and the eventual revelation of life-altering secrets. Li’s Amber is more serious than DeLoreto’s lighthearted Peet, and they both bring just the right energy to the roles.

Mickey Flacks does a fine job with the largely nonspeaking role of Anne’s mother, Trudy … though she does sing from time to time, which is great fun.

Erica Flor and Tonea Lolin are an absolute delight as a pair of newscasters providing intermittent updates on the missing art.

As the spirit of the mystical statue, Wendy Sims-Moten is wonderfully poised and matter-of-fact as she surprises the assembled humans by appearing to them and exercising some of her powers.

Tyler X Koontz is lots of fun as another spirit released from the statue, who decides this modern world is not so bad when he meets Carol. Their comic-romantic scene together is truly a hoot.

Brief musical interludes between scenes are provided by the delightfully irreverent and talented L.A.-based musical comedy duo, Mommy Tonk (Stacie Burrows and Shannon Noel). Accompanied by acoustic guitar with wickedly clever lyrics, their song-lets effectively move along and comment on the action. The one about shopping at Target is worth the price of admission on its own.

The set, designed by Vickie J. Scott, strikes the right balance of spareness and whimsy, with towering tree trunks alongside a normal-looking living room. And special mention must be made of sculptor Robert Perrish’s work in creating the mystical statue that the action centers around, and which has a strong presence in its own right.

A compact 90 minutes with no intermission, this is a highly enjoyable evening of theater that should not be missed. Take a stroll through the forest, and see what you discover.

In the Forest of Detroit runs through May 23 at Center Stage Theater. Click here to purchase tickets online.

— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.