“Don’t write plays about nice days.” This was the mantra of Mr. Moody, who led the after-school acting class at my high school. He taught that every compelling story must have a conflict in its core. At our first session, there were no performance exercises or script readings. No, Mr. Moody wanted to make sure his students understood the elements of drama and how a game of make believe can impact the cast, the audience and society so profoundly. Attending Vineyard Theatre’s production of Dot reminded how essential the cathartic power of identifying yourself on stage is to the best drama.
Colman Domingo’s story centers on Dotty, an elderly black woman struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, and her adult children. The writing is abundant with the joy and humor of this vibrant family but simultaneously plugged into the pain and loss intrinsic to change, especially aging. The exquisite directing of Susan Stroman enhances the tragic and comedic nuances established by Domingo as well as the natural playful dynamic between cast members.
The set is a middle-class home in present-day West Philadelphia, moving from the kitchen to the living room. The curtain is a cool-colored pointillist painting of the outside of several homes, reminiscent of the set in Sunday in the Park with George. It is the evening before Christmas Eve. Tunes by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland set the festive, yet melancholy. When the play is about to begin the light filled windows gives way to a blackout of the entire theatre, during which the music swells in volume. The play begins abruptly upon a severe, almost blinding, switch to light. It takes a few seconds to change perspective from the blurry pixels of a lived in room to a sharpened recognition of the pictures and magnets on the refrigerator door and Dotty’s daily pillbox laying open on the kitchen table. The jarring use of lighting and sound puts audience members in the position of experiencing the dramatic change Dotty and her family are undergoing, not only due to Dotty’s illness, but also the aging of the siblings and their long time family friend Katie.
The performances are absolutely stellar and bold in their vulnerability. Dotty (Marjorie Johnson) is portrayed with refinement and complex swirls of naughty playfulness. Longtime friend and childhood neighbor of the family, Katie (Sharon Washington, who has worked alongside Domingo in Wild With Happy and Scottsboro Boys) enters the play with secret agitation about how her own life has gone in a direction she never would have predicted. This anxiety is set free in a side-splitting tsunami to Jackie in tandem with a much needed box of Cheez-Its. For a large part of Act II, the middle child Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore) is only present as a voice mailbox in his sister Jackie’s unanswered calls of help in the caretaking of their mother. Soon after, we meet Donnie attempting to indulge in leftovers in secret. He fears that his husband Adam (Colin Hanlon) is ashamed of him for his changing body, his disengagement with drugs (with “white-girl names like Molly”), and with popular gay culture. Averie (Libya V.Pugh), the youngest child and a stormy force to be reckoned with, is YouTube starlet relentlessly stretching her small phase of fame.
Fidel (Michael Rosen) engages in fearless and gentle rapport as with Dotty as her Kazakhstani home care attendant. After spending Act I in denial of her shortcomings and lashing out at those around her, Dotty reveals she is frightened of her declining quality of life due to Alzheimer’s for the first time. This scene between Fidel and Dotty in Act II is one of the most moving scenes of the play.
But one of the most important characters in the play is someone we never meet: Jason, the young son of Jackie. The family asks themselves what families in real life are forced to ask themselves time and time again: How are we going to survive this change? Is survival even possible? On a tape recorder, Dotty shares her memories and stories she learned in school with hope that her grandson will continue getting to know her and remember he is loved by his grandma after her death, which she knows is coming soon. What does Merry Christmas mean during a time of impending loss? How do these characters, with their particular personalities and individual burdens aside from the shared concern for Dotty, take care of one another and themselves?
Facts and figures show that if you have not experienced or have had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, it is highly likely that you will in the future. One in three of American seniors die with the disease. Despite its increasing occurrence scientists still don’t yet fully understand its cause. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can seem like a death sentence to many, an unjust robbery of one’s own mind. And yet, even though death under these (and frankly, all) circumstances is a cruel and unfair process, Dot presents the struggle to live life to the fullest and find joy in the face of our eventual end.
The more I think about Dot, the more I want to drag anyone I like in the slightest by their collars to the box office of the Vineyard Theatre. The performances of the entire cast ignite reflection on the vulnerability required to endure human existence and allow us to rejoice in the mixed sweetness and bitterness in the fruits of family. Dot delivers the catharsis of theatre I first learned about that day in Mr. Moody’s class. I saw myself and my family (everybody’s family!) and all our strengths and weaknesses vividly portrayed on stage with non-judgmental love, generosity, and realism. If Dotty’s family can survive this enormous struggle with grace and love, then we can too.
Dot plays at the Vineyard Theatre through March 20. Tickets and information here.