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A CurtainUp Review
Chicago playwright Dawkins'engrossing comedy-drama, begins on the day Mama Darlin offers her first deportment class at The Center, a social-services facility and homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth. Mama Darlin is there to spread the gospel of Mrs. Post, who was a standard bearer of appropriate behavior for upwardly mobile Americans through much of the 20th century.
Mama believes that what she calls "charm" can improve — even save — her pupils' lives. "The purpose of Charm," she says, "is to help everybody feel comfortable and welcome" She's referring to Charm, the class she's teaching at the Center (note the initial capital letter); but she's also talking about charm (with a lower case "c"), the quality that's equal parts courtesy, generosity of spirit, and consideration for the feelings of others. In her view, the latter kind of charm is a key, perhaps the key, to happiness in a harsh, chaotic world.
To the pupils gathering for the first session of Charm, Mama Darlin's views are as alien as a message from another galaxy. Most of the enrollees have been drawn to the class by the prospect of free refreshments; some are at the Center primarily because it's a safe space in a dangerous city; others are biding time until they can race to the front of the line for beds in the shelter dormitory.
Under the direction of Will Davis, a talented cast conjures the figures from Dawkins' fertile imagination, creating a group portrait that's vivid, credible, and heartbreaking. (Seven of the nine characters in Charm are transgender, living courageously against the grain of biology.)
Beta (Marquise Vilson) is on the run from the vendetta of a street gang that has turned on him. Ariela (Hailie Sahar) contends with HIV and navigational challenges in the public health and public assistance systems, while supporting herself by soliciting in the streets.
Lady (Marky Irene Diven) exists at an advanced point along the autism spectrum. Jonelle (Jojo Brown) and Logan (Michael Lorz), still in their teens, are just beginning to figure out how to "live their truth" (as Mama Darlin phrases it). Donnie (Michael David Baldwin) and Victoria (Lauren F. Walker), homeless and oddly matched, cling to each other for reasons obscure to everyone, including themselves.
The company, which also includes Kelli Simpkins as The Center's program director, gives Charm the vibrancy, as well as vulgarity, of urban street life, steering clear of any case-study detachment. And the production moves at a propulsive pace reminiscent of Men in Boats which Davis directed for Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb last season.
Charm is "inspired by" Gloria Allen, a Kentucky-born transgender woman now in her seventies, who established an etiquette program at The Center on Halsted in Chicago that's the model for the play's setting. According to a program note, "Miss Allen remains active in the Chicago LGBTQ community as a motivational speaker, mentor, and community organizer."
As a portrait of Ms. Allen (or a figure like her), Charm belongs to a tradition that includes Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Frances Gray Patton's Good Morning, Miss Dove, E.R. Braithwaite's To Sir with Love, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase, and Tom Schulman's Dead Poets Society. In such narratives, an educator, flawed but well-meaning, affects and transforms recalcitrant students in unexpected ways while discovering (to borrow a phrase from Oscar Hammerstein II) "that if you become a teacher / by your pupils you'll be taught."
In Charm one of the students tells Mama Darlin, " . . . you special, you . . . you sparkle, you . . . got Light."
The same can be said of Caldwell, the fine actress who embodies Mama Darlin. From the play's initial moment, when Caldwell takes the stage to deliver Mama's first-day-of-class address to the audience, it's clear she has that indefinable quality sometimes called "stage weight." What's striking is that, after a whoop-up of an opening monologue, this extraordinary performer re-calibrates the force of her presence to ensure she doesn't overshadow her stage companions, becoming integral to a nearly seamless ensemble.
Though Dawkins concludes his first act with a cumbersome bit of melodrama, he displays, overall, a sure sense of dramatic structure and a knack for shifting gears in the right places. The ensemble scenes in Mama's classroom are interspersed with duologues between teacher and individual students, guaranteeing that all The Center clients are full-bodied characters and none of them mere types.
The play's sequences of high dramatic tension (of which there are many) give way to cathartic interludes of pop music and gleeful "vogueing" by Mama's "babies." The expert sound design is by Palmer Hefferan. The choreography is by Davis, who has indicated that his primary interest as a director/choreographer is "physically adventurous new work"
The climax of Charm includes a wildly anti-realistic sequence dramatizing what Emily Post (Diven) means to Mama Darlin. For a time Dawkins seems to be relying on whimsy to tie up his loose ends; but, in the denouement, he brings the action back from an astral plane to the hardscrabble world of The Center and the neighborhood it serves.
Despite moments of caprice and the occasional creak of melodramatic machinery, Charm is a work of compelling realism. Those of us not well acquainted with the transgender world (which is likely to include much of MCC Theater's subscription audience) are bound to be jolted by the traumas of The Center's clients: family rejection, physical abuse, social alienation, self-loathing, homelessness, suicidal urges, chronic unemployment, and hunger. But all that pain is integrated into a play that's also filled with delights.
Dawkins, whose recent work includes Miss Marx: Or the Involuntary Side Effect of Living, a rowdy portrait of activist-actress Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl), has a thriving career in Chicago. In addition to writing, he acts and teaches (playwriting at Northwestern and Loyola Universities and Kung Fu at Rising Phoenix Martial Arts Academy). With Jefferson Awards to his credit (for Charm and Miss Marx), he is overdue for discovery by New York.
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Charm by Philip Dawkins
Director: Will Davis
Cast: Michael David Baldwin (Donnie); Jojo Brown (Jonelle); Sandra Caldwell (Mama Darleena Andrews); Marky Irene Diven (Lady); Michael Lorz (Logan); Hailie Sahar (Ariela); Kelli Simpkins (D); Marquise Vilson (Beta); Lauren F. Walker (Victoria)
Scenic Designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Costume Designer: Oana Botez
Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan
Production Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Presented by MCC Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
From 08/31/17; opened 9/18/17; closing 10/15/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at September 14th press performance
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