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A CurtainUp Review
The play opens in the kitchen of a comfortable middle-class Afro-American family in West Philadelphia where matriarch Dotty Shealy (Marjorie Johnson), still lives. Dotty has been diagnosed with dementia and the job of caring for her has fallen on her harried eldest daughter, Shelly (Sharon Washington), who copes with a handy bottle of watermelon vodka and sleeping aids. She is waiting for her brother and her younger sister to arrive, so they can plan for Dotty's future care, something they have avoided so far. Domingo understands the ironic edge of a tragic situation and director Susan Stroman does a fine job focusing on the humor, lightening the dark undercurrent with well-timed lines by an exemplary cast.
The others show up and Shelly expects help from her brother, Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore). He is a musicologist living in New York with his husband, Adam (Colin Hanlon) but when they arrive, Donnie tells her that he and Adam are having personal issues. Shelly's younger sister, Averie (Libya V. Pugh) is a vivacious shot of adrenaline who brings a frenetic comic energy and dreams of being a celebrity. A part-time caretaker is Fidel (Michael Rosen), Dottie's Kazakh aide, an untrained but caring helper who does what he can.
Dropping in is Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), a white girl now living in New York, who has run back home to Philly because of a personal problem in New York. While the others are directly involved with Dotty's situation, Jackie's longtime friendship adds insight to the neighborhood and family values. As they gather in the living room, a touching scene shows Dotty trying to hold on to the memory of dancing with her late husband in the living room. When that flash of memory fades, Dotty becomes frustrated. the affable Adam quickly steps in with a formal bow. "Can I have this dance?" and he whirls her around the living room and just for this moment, Adam has taken a glowing Dottie back to a happy time with her husband.
Dotty's decline is finally brought home when Donnie opens a Christmas present from his mother. Donnie is told to put on the black goggles, latex gloves, ear buds and pebbles in his shoes. Two of his fingers are taped together and he is given five tasks to do in 12 minutes. Confused and frightened with his senses hampered, Donnie, and everyone else, understands the reality of walking in his mother's shoes. They are ready to have the talk.
Despite their faults, the characters remain likeable and believable. Marjorie Johnson is formidable in portraying Dotty's appeal and inherent intelligence. She struggles hard with her dementia yet still keeps her humor — enjoying the joyful moments, working at organizing her thoughts into a portable recorder, noting memories for her grandson. Her give and take with the impatient Shelly are fluent and her lightening switches from lucidity to forgetfulness are heartbreaking.
As Shelly, Washington reveals an educated woman who still has a capacity for fun but is beleaguered by care taking, single motherhood and a law job. Shelly's frequent visits to the hairdresser are a way to hold on to some of her own needs in a maelstrom of responsibilities.
Production values bring to life the Shealy family. Music was always an important part of the Shealy home, so there is a piano that Donnie later plays and we hear strains of Ray Charles, Doris Day, Nat King Cole throughout the play. Allen Moyer has designed a familiar kitchen and a living room setting that looks lived in but not shabby. Kara Harmon dresses Dottie neatly with low heels, Donnie and Adam wear J. Crew and Dave Bota gives Shelly the blonde hair her mother describes as a "mean pineapple." Over-the-top Averie is perfect in her over-the-thigh boots and micro-minis.
Colman Domingo proves his sharp ear for dialogue, witty lines and overlapping conversations that are as real as the neighborhood. He met Susan Stroman, when he was featured in The Scottsboro Boys which she directed. They clearly share an understanding of the intricacies of today's families. Without bang-up gizmos or blinding lazars, Dot. is a powerful glimpse of the new normal family.