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Wild with Happy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sharon Washington and Colman Domingo.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Why does it sometimes take so long to find yourself? This question, in forms both intended and otherwise, is at the heart of Colman Domingo's new play at The Public Theater, Wild with Happy. And regardless of your opinions of this brisk, occasionally bizarre, evening, it's one you won't be able to stop asking from the opening scene to finale.

This, alas, does not start out as a good thing. The opening scene features an impressively dressed man, whom we'll soon come to know as Gil (whom Domingo plays with suave stature), standing before a curtain explaining how he lost whatever religious inclinations he once had. His mother, Adelaide (Sharon Washington), took him to a church to "get us some Jesus," and we see, in an achingly strained rollicking fashion, that that means exactly what you'd expect of a Southern black Baptist-style service: an overly charismatic preacher causing devout women to swoon, screeching into a microphone about sin as everyone congratulates themselves on how holy they are. The spirit is so thick, in other words, you could cut it with a credit card.

"Thick" is the best way to describe Domingo's approach here, which is somewhat less than encouraging. Mocking this style of religious experience is old news, especially when it's done without a visible spark of inspiration. (The recent Broadway run of the musical version of Sister Act had this gimmick covered for over a year.) This is another "walking toward Jesus" or "walking away from Jesus" show that you've seen a hundred times before, so there's no reason to pay attention now, Domingo seems to be saying. And in that moment I, for one, was happy to oblige.

But gradually Domingo embarks into less familiar territory, and the deeper he ventures the livelier and lovelier things become. As the action unfolds, it becomes clear that the point of the story isn't that Gil become better acquainted with the Lord, but that he comes to understand who he is. The catalyst for this is Adelaide's death, and specifically Gil's inward examination of why she became honestly, rather than overtly, devoted in her final months—and what he might be able to learn from her example.

The "miraculous" part of this, for both Domingo and his director, Robert O'Hara, is that embracing the genuineness gives them far more freedom to explore legitimately creative avenues. The fraught and taut encounter Gil has with Terry (Korey Jackson), the attractive funeral home manager he's shortly to romance, anchors scenic and costume designer Clint Ramos's inclination to use a selection of coffins as set pieces from which the rest of the show will visually and inventively spring. (Ramos's deceptively opulent work is heightened by Japhy Weideman's excellent lights and Lindsay Jones's charming and subtle music and sound.) Yet it highlights, for both you and Gil, death's omnipresence, and that in turn fuels Gil's understanding and choices.

Sharon Washington and Colman Domingo joined by Korey Jackson and Maurice McRae.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This leads him into his memory, where he begins reconnecting with Adelaide, and then into the process of moving on. Although comprising acts as severe as cremation (they can't afford a full burial), that primarily involves at first dodging the irresistible pressures of his aunt, Glo (Washington again), who's eager to not only show the world how much she cared about her sister but also to raid her closet. Each of her monologues is, literally and figuratively, a breathless testimony to selfless selfishness, which Washington blasts with stunning conviction, an unerring aim, and impressive lung power.

Later, it means enlisting the services of Mo (Maurice McRae) to drive Gil and Adelaide's ashes to her final resting place, and also the only location in the country where Gil can come to terms with everything he's lost. Yet even in these somber moments, Domingo the playwright is able to wring real laughs from the interactions of these four crazy people, and O'Hara is able to balance them all to create a tale that is ultimately every bit as life-affirming as it is theatrical and funny. We slowly see how the only obstacles the way for Gil—and for most of us—are self-erected, and once the play becomes about overcoming them rather than catering to worn-through theatrical or characterological stereotypes, Wild with Happy is much easier to appreciate and, eventually, love.

Key to helping you through the difficult moments is the superlative cast. Gil's transformation is a joy to behold as Domingo renders it, beginning as self-assured ice and developing an engaging warmth that shows just how much Gil is evolving both personally and spiritually. McRae highlights all of Mo's outrageous fabulousness without ever going (quite) too far. Despite having the most straight-ahead role, Jackson makes Terry just as vivid and compelling as the more colorful characters on offer.

Washington, however, stands alone: In portraying both the simply sweet Adelaide and the raucous locomotive that is Glo, she captures as well as upends two significant African-American archetypes while at the same time recasting them for today. She seems both women as different forces of nature, separate but equal representations of what Gil sees, admires, and somehow hopes one day to become.

In detailing that journey, Wild with Happy encourages us all to reconsider how faith and family affect, and in many cases detract from, the way we view the world. And, thanks to Domingo and O'Hara's fervent efforts, the destination is a highly rewarding one. But it's tough not to wish it didn't take as long as it does to get there.

Wild with Happy
Through November 11
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets and current schedule:

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