Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Some take us through a sort of Kansas, long and flat. And some are like Idaho, where you go shooting up one side of a mountain, then plunging down the other, like sky-diving, over and over.
Then there's Colman Domingo's 2016 comedy Dot. In this month's production in the Edison Theatre at Washington University, the geography is more like Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border. There are beautiful, jaw-dropping prominences in the characters revealed, around every corner. Thomasina Clarke plays Dot, the matriarch of a west Philadelphia family who is drifting into dementia. And near the end, she has a little slow dance that seems to signal not just her own slipping away, but also the end of an era of beauty and grace that's dying out all around us. Someday, like Monument Valley itself, Dot's effortless elegance will be washed away by time and erosion. But here a delicate, care-worn majesty still commands our attention.
Ron Himes (founder of The Black Rep) produces and directs, drawing consistently brash and brilliant performances from Jacqueline Thompson as Shelly, Dot's older daughter and comically beleaguered caretaker; and from Heather Beal as Averie, a wild younger daughter who seems to be living in her own private reality TV show. Chauncy Thomas is great as Donnie, the only son: a perfectly modern 40-year-old gay guy with a perfectly modern husband (Paul Edwards). And together they have some funny relationship problems, which are exacerbated by Donnie's return to his childhood home.
But part of me wishes the play had ended with that beautiful little dance scene between Ms. Clarke and Mr. Edwards, sending her off with the memory of her long-lost husband. After that wistful, lyrical moment, the final 10 or 15 minutes end up as a more sensible "couch play," which is still good for comedy and drama. And one big subplot, an unplanned pregnancy, is left for us to imagine in silence, during a mimed conversation stage right in those final minutes. Full credit to the playwright for letting us figure that out for ourselves.
And if it weren't for that last scene, after the dance, Donnie wouldn't get to deliver a revelatory speech about his fatherone that changes everything, from childhood right up to the present. It concerns the head of a family that seemed so perfect, in a memory that was cobbled together from many disconnected little snapshots, but one which ignored a larger, bleaker background. It's a monolog that reveals a kind of family-wide "reverse dementia," falling away only in adulthood. And in Mr. Thomas' hands, it's also a perfect stage-moment of personal truth.
But it's Dot's battle with Alzheimer's disease that really thrusts the family into the present. At the outset, Shelly is exhausted and lashing out in a very funny way, when childhood friend Jackie (Ms. Brown) comes home for Christmas. Jacqueline Thompson's comical exasperation is fantastic, but it's also a great model for what really happens to all non-professional caregivers over time. And Ms. Clarke as her mother goes through a broad range of different kinds of forgetfulness, some touching, most funny, and a few just plain scary. It's an epic performance, surrounded (mostly) by ennobled supporting characters: some mad, some maddened, and everyone stretched to the limit.
Ryan Lawson-Maeske is very fine as Dot's overnight attendant, who tries to stay connected to his faraway family by Skype, adding a lovely, lonely pang to the Christmas Eve setting; before that, Jackie (Courtney Elaine Brown) has an intensely rousing rant about her own failure to find the perfect man. And throughout act two, Ms. Beal's Averie consistently sets off explosions of embarrassed laughter in the audiencewhich reveals the mind of an actress who knows exactly what's required, from moment to moment, to keep Dot outrageously aloft.
Through September 24, 2017, at the Edison Theatre, on the campus of Washington University, 6465 Forsythe Ave. For more information visit www.theblackrep.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
The Production Staff
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage hands in the United States.
** Denotes member, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc., an independent national labor union.