The Dreamer Examines His Pillow
Shanley, who wrote the screenplay for the movie Moonstruck and was more recently awarded both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for the play version of Doubt, scripted Dreamer in 1985. Tod Randolph, the woman who is directing her first play, was then learning her craft as an actor at Julliard during the mid-1980s. She watched fellow class members perform a scene and has long since wished to direct this play.
Shanley's ninety-minute piece is, on one level, about the searing power of sex and its place within the context of human relationships. Complications follow. Tommy (Bowman Wright) and Donna (Miriam Hyman) once had an explosive love affair. The play opens in his downtown Manhattan apartment. Prone to pilfer from his mother, he has become involved with Donna's sixteen-year-old sister, Mona. Soon, Donna arrives on the scene and finds Tommy's place to be a physical mess. He has drawn, with crayons, a self-portrait. Put it this way: Tommy and Donna have it out.
Stagehands transform the performance space (this takes a while), and the scene shifts to a fairly inviting apartment in the Heightsher father's place. Actor John Douglas Thompson (who has been much acclaimed for his title role performance in Othello in Lenox) plays Dad. Donna and Dad have not seen one another for quite some time. He explains that he so loved his wife but confesses to cheating on her. Further, Donna reminds him of her mother. Dad is also a prolific artist but has sold almost all of his paintings. Now, Donna implores him to advise her. She loves Tommy but he is so very much like Dad. Hyman, as Donna, is passionate and tense, drawn both to Tommy and her father. It's all perplexing and quite challenging. The second scene of the play, inescapably stirring, is memorable. The moment-to-moment acting is shocking, unsettling, but also quite brilliant. Figurative but not literal punches are thrown time and again.
All of Randolph's actors are African-American. Shanley did not specifically write this play with a recommendation that black actors fill the roles. The Shakespeare & Company production is urgent and agitating as all three actors fully inhabit the characters and capture Shanley's fire.
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow will not please those who are offended by crude language and phrasing Shanley, from the Bronx, writes dialogue filled with basic feeling which demands electric response. It's all about back-and-forth. Mostly an in-your-face and boldly audacious work, it does include sequences when Tommy actually speaks to his refrigerator.
The Bernstein Theatre, on a muggy, hot evening in late summer, is a perfect (rectangular) spot for this particular performance. It's somewhat uncomfortable to sit there, without moving, and simply witness the painful drama before one's eyes. There is, however, some symmetry as the hour and one half concludes.
Disturbing and staggering, the play is not without reliefmore wry than comic. Shanley is now a highly respected playwright; back in the day, he was youthful writer, hoping for success. Randolph deserves to be complimented for actualizing her take on the script. The production she mounts is expressive, vital and winning.
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow continues at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, through September 6th at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. For tickets, call (413) 637-3353 or visit Shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol