Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Terror Fantastic
However, I would not call Dot a Christmas story. It is a story of shifting family dynamics, as adult children are forced to confront and realign patterned rolesthe bossy oldest, the receding middle child, and the perpetual juvenile youngestas they come to grips with an overarching change that looms over them all: the need to assume care and responsibility for their parents. This well-written play, equal parts family drama and domestic comedy, is having its first area production at Park Square Theatre following a well received 2016 Off-Broadway fun.
Playwright Colman Domingo uses the holiday time frame as a vehicle to draw an African-American family together in a setting of heightened emotions and nostalgia for family traditions. Dot, the Shealy family matriarch, has Alzheimer's disease. Her short term memory is deteriorating rapidly and her ability to distinguish present from past makes it difficult for her to accomplish even simple tasks. Yet, at times she is fully lucid, drawing on wisdom culled over a long life to make insightful and often witty commentary on the people and events swirling around her.
Eldest daughter Shelly, a public defender and single parent, has borne most of the brunt of caring for Dot, and most clearly recognizes her mother's decline. The burden, both financially and emotionally, is wearing her to the bone. Donnie, the middle child, is a 40-year-old freelance writer (read: no steady revenue) living with his husband Adam in New York City. Youngest child Averie is a wannabe model/singer/actress, her resume replete with short-lived accomplishments that led nowhere. Being in a long lull, Averie is working as a big box store cashier and living in Shelly's basement, though the two have not been on speaking terms.
Along with the Shealys, we meet Jackie, the "girl next door" whose white family was one of the few that remained in their West Philadelphia neighborhood when black families moved in. Jackie and Donnie were high school sweetheartsat least that was how Jackie saw things, while teenage Donnie tried to fend off the reality of being a gay man. Over 20 years later, Jackie has never found "Mr. Right," and still harbors the feeling that it could have been Donnie. Finally, we meet Fidel, an immigrant from Uzbekistan hired by Shelly to help take care of Dot three days a week. Fidel is exceedingly cheerful, speaks little English, and is perplexed by the behavior of Americans, but he is nobody's fool.
Domingo's narrative arc is compelling, setting up conflict among the three siblings and the tension between Shelly and Dot, who resists Shelly's interventions in her waning life. There are also currents of strife between Donnie and Adam (their marriage has hit a rocky patch), along with tender moments between Donnie and Jackie, and a gleeful conspiracy hatched by Dot and Fidel. What seems like a series of episodes over a stretch of about 36 hours culminate on Christmas Eve with new understandings among all assembled, and resolutions that are both dramatically satisfying and bear the ring of real world plausibility.
Director E.G. Bailey sheds a positive light on each character, so there are no villains, just people coping the best they can, given who they are. The respect afforded each character allows us to feel affection and sympathize with them, even as we see their flaws, the most egregious case being Shelly getting respite from the demands of caring for her mother by excessively giving Dot sleep-inducing drugs. In the long run, we see them become a stronger family for accepting one another's differences not as affronts to the family, but as different representations of the family's core values.
Dot is played by Cynthia Jones-Taylor, giving a wonderful portrayal of a woman fading in and out of reality. At times she is painfully aware that her faculties are failing her, other times oblivious as she asks the same question repeatedly, or drifts into a fantasy where she loses track of where she is, or who she is with. One of the most moving scenes occurs when she mistakes Adam for her late husband and asks him to dance, which Adam obligingly does, a tender remembrance of a romance long gone. Yvette Ganier who stepped into the role of Shelley as the production was nearing performance, admirably succeeds in depicting Shelly's desperation as Dot's needs overshadow everything else in her life. She can be abrasive and overplay the martyr card, yet we understand her need to keep from drowning in responsibilities. Both Jones-Taylor and Ganier are among a growing number of fine actors who have recently made debuts on Twin Cities' stages, with Jones-Taylor slated to stay on for Park Square's re-mount of A Raisin in the Sun later this season.
As Averie, the incandescent Dame-Jasmine Hughes steals the scenes she is in, projecting Averie's exuberant, boisterous demeanor. She shines in a speech linking pork chitterlings to her slave heritage, a scene that is hilarious, yet also aches with sincerity. Ricardo Beaird is completely winning as Donnie, showing us a gay man who does not "present" as gaymaking Jackie's torch for him believablewhile Michael Hanna effectively portrays both the kindness and prickliness in Adam's persona. Maxwell Collyard, as Fidel, seems overly goofy at first, but as he reveals more about his character, he develops some gravitas, and we come to see his good humor as a mask for the challenges in his life. Only Anna Letts Larkin, as Jackie, seems a bit out of place, her emotions muted in terms of the circumstances Jackie faces. Then again, Jackie's situation is not the center of the story, and in some ways feels like a plot device inserted to allow for some opening scene exposition.
Andrea Heilman has designed a beautiful set, with the Shealy home's warm kitchen setting for act one, typical of older urban homes with updated features, such as the marble-top center island. Act two reveals the Shealy living room, festooned with family photos, an elegant staircase and comfortable, well maintained furnishings. Michael P. Kittel's lighting is especially effective showing transitions from day to night and back again, including a scene that involves a midnight refrigerator raid. Rebecca Karstad's costumes complement the characters' personalities well. A bit of dancethe lovely pairing of Dot and Adam, and a bit of get-down boogying shared by the Shealy siblingsare nicely choreographed by Vie Boheme.
Dot is a very fine play dealing with an issue that affects most families at some time, when the primary dynamic of relationships, all leading from child to parent, even as the children move well into their own adulthood, changes course. The children must relate to one another in a primary way if the family is to maintain viability, as their parents fade into dependency and, in time, pass from this life altogether. Colman Domingo, who appeared as an actor several seasons ago in The Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie, shows great talent as a playwright, and Park Square has mounted Dot with loving care, while giving it room for the humor and vitality to shine through. It well worth seeing, at the holidays or at any time of year.
Dot continues on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre through January 7, 2018, at 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Colman Domingo; Director: E.G. Bailey; Scenic Design: Andrea Heilman; Costume Design: Rebecca Karstad; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Christy Johnson; Properties Design: Connor McEvoy; Choreographer: Vie Boheme; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty; Assistant Stage Manager: Elizabeth Efteland.
Cast: Ricardo Beaird (Donnie), Maxwell Collyard (Fidel), Yvette Ganier (Shelly), Michael Hanna (Adam), Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Averie), Cynthia Jones-Taylor (Dot), Anna Letts Lakin (Jackie).