Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Feeding the Dragon
Also see Zander's review of Steel Magnolias
The actress begins the show by inviting observers to the library. Tony Ferrieri's set includes rows of books on lower tiers and Washington walks in front of them. Having trained at Yale School of Drama, she appeared in The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway. At Yale Rep, she originated the role of Grace in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson when it opened in 1980. Feeding the Dragon, directed with precision by Maria Mileaf, was first staged at Pittsburgh's City Theatre this past fall. The Hartford rendering is a co-production with Primary Stages and will be next presented at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York.
Washington plays a multitude of characters and the library provides entre to her life stories. Her mother, with an accent to prove it, is a tough-love native New Yorker who wants only the very best for her daughter. Her father, George, works day and night; he has a drinking problem. We learn that Sharon's grandmother loved to read and her Uncle Gene is an artist whose work is moving and lovely. Her father is from Charleston, South Carolina. She travels with him to that city and becomes acquainted with more relatives and gains awareness of the Old Slave Mart and Middleton, a plantation. The time spent there is revelatory for Sharon.
As a playwright, Washington references, within this work, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, and others. The script is carefully composed and allows for rapid or slower moments. Ann Wrightson, lighting the show, brightens, at intervals, the library books and rear building windows, too. While the St. Agnes Branch becomes a real facilitator for the play, the author/performer provides rich, precious family anecdotes of her immediate family and others not on the scene, too. She first attended public school but then moved on to The Dalton School, where many children of wealthy parents became classmates.
At the library itself, young Sharon would walk down to the stacks after hours, and immerse herself within the rich words she found in books. She truly loved fairy tales.
Ms. Washington, elegantly lanky, is nimble on her feet. She literally dances through some short scenes and always faces her audience. Her composure is enviable and she enables those in attendance to accompany her, to feel a part of her process. Thus, everyone with an open mind and heart is transported to 444 Amsterdam Avenue and the fifth floor walk-up dwelling where little Sharon lived. The family moved on to apartments at other branches but the St. Agnes situation was most formative.
A natural story teller, Washington first thought that her reflections would best be expressed as a children's book. Another actor, years ago, urged her to consider presenting on stage. This is the perfect vehicle since she is able to maximize her many talents. Washington is particularly adept with spot-on vocal accents. Feeding the Dragon is certainly heartfelt, but not without some levity. As the actress proceeds, it is easy to visualize her father feeding the dragon (furnace) and little, creative Sharon diving into the many books within her library world. Thus, one is asked to listen, watch, and open one's imagination.
Feeding the Dragon, at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, through February 4th, 2018. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.