Story: Dotty Shealey is looking forward to the Christmas holidays at her West Philadelphia home. It’s a chance for her to reunite with her three adult children and celebrate as a family. This year is a bit different, however, as Dotty’s mind has been slipping precipitously.
Eldest daughter and single mother Shelly looks after her mother, often at the expense of her legal career and attention to her son Jason. Middle child Donnie, a struggling music critic and writer who lives in New York City, arrives with his partner Adam two days before Christmas, followed by youngest daughter Averie, an aspiring actress who’s been crashing at her sister’s home while money is tight.
Former next-door neighbor Jackie, now living in New York, pops by unexpectedly in the morning to visit while she’s back in town staying in the house she still hasn't sold since her parents’ passing. She’s surprised when Dot appears to welcome her again after Jackie’s been talking with her and Shelly in the kitchen for quite some time. Dotty also exhibits other mannerisms which strike Jackie as odd.
It’s a shock to her siblings, Paul and Jackie when Shelly reveals that Dotty is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Because of Dotty’s affliction, Shelly has been employing an immigrant from Kazakhstan named Fidel to serve as caregiver to Dotty when Shelly is unavailable. Shelly also has her own system of dealing with Dotty’s condition which strikes Donnie as misleading. The Shealey family soon realizes this holiday will be unlike any they’ve shared in the past.
Highlights: The Black Rep opens its 41st season with the St. Louis premiere of a comedy by Colman Domingo which depicts one family’s reaction to an aging parent’s slide into dementia.
Other Info: Domingo, who has enjoyed recognition as an actor, has been writing plays for a few years, including Dot, which premiered at The Humana Festival in Louisville in 2015. After that Dot was performed at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.
The actor/playwright has achieved notable success on Broadway and elsewhere and is still developing his writing skills. Dot is considered a comedy and there are indeed many funny lines in the script. Still, at times Dot strains credulity, such as when Shelly realizes that Jackie, who grew up next door, is Jewish. Huh?
While Dot doubtless has its fans, one could argue that Domingo tries to squeeze too many contemporary topics into his story. There’s the gay marriage of Donnie and Paul, the girl-next-door love of Jackie for Donnie that continues into middle age, and even the apparently illegal status of Fidel, as referenced by Shelly and Averie. Wedging all of this information into one script which supposedly focuses on dementia just seems to dilute the impact of Dot’s condition to a degree.
On the other hand, Domingo offers two compelling scenes in the superior second act, including a stunning segment when Donnie, and by extension everyone else, comes to realize the impediments faced by his mother in her daily life. The set-up for this scene is clever and the payoff is profound.
Dunsi Dai’s scenic design incorporates a realistic kitchen at stage right which adjoins a comfortable, middle-class living room at stage left that is augmented with a towering Christmas tree. Prop designer Kate Slovinski adds a rotary phone, a turntable and some LPs which carry a mood underscored by Kareem Deanes’ eclectic sound design, a combination of soft jazz and holiday tunes.
Joseph Clapper’s lighting design keeps the show in the dark in several scenes set late at night, mostly in the kitchen, while Gregory Horton’s costume design is an effective blend of Averie’s chic look, Jackie’s professional garb and the comfortable attire favored by Dotty, among others.
Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes has assembled a cast that can dig for the diamonds in Domingo’s writing, including Thomasina Clarke in the title role. Clarke depicts Dot’s wit and charm as effectively in one scene as she does her confusion and frustration in the next, nary missing a beat in the transformation. Himes uses the entire stage to help shape touching scenes with Dot at their center, surrounded by puzzled family and friends.
Jacqueline Thompson savvily portrays the weary Shelly, who is not above using tricks on her mother to gain some much-needed respite from her responsiblities. As Donnie, Chauncy Thomas finely constructs the son’s fragile personality, whether chafing at his less-than-modest success in his career, his fractious relationship with Adam or his shock at finally realizing his mother’s actual condition.
There’s good work as well by Heather Beal as the jive-talking and self-centered Averie, who has a loving heart even if it’s hidden beneath her short-sighted goals. Ryan Lawson-Maeske brings convincing warmth and humanity to the role of Fidel, who considers Dot as much a friend as a job.
Paul Edwards has a nice turn as Adam in a poignant albeit tragic scene with Dot, while Courtney Brown conveys the compassion and grief of Jackie for a lady she’s known since childhood. Her late scene with Donnie, though, is awkward at best, as Domingo struggles to write realistic dialogue.
Dot uses comedy and pathos to deal with a serious issue which strikes more families every year. If Domingo could remove some of the clutter surrounding the main story it’d be better than it is in the current Black Rep presentation.
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. at Washington University
Dates: September 13-17, 20-24
Tickets: $15-$45; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer