It is just before Christmas, and Dot’s family is joining their mother in her West Philadelphia home. In short order, son Donnie and daughter Averie learn what their older sister Shelly already knows: their mother has dementia. But rather than a serious drama of the decline of the matriarch, playwright Colman Domingo has created a comedy-drama that is more comedy than drama, in the regional premiere onstage at People’s Light.
Shelly (Zuhairah) has taken it upon herself to assist her mother, but her nerves are frayed and she can’t afford more than a part-time caregiver from Kazakhstan, Fidel (Tyler Elliott). Resentful at a lack of help from her siblings, Shelly constantly argues with and confronts her mother. She is also drinking.
When her brother Donnie (André Ward) arrives from New York with his husband, Adam (Parker Drown), she starts challenging Donnie to recognize the situation and offer help, both in care and with financial resources. But he is struggling in his profession as a music journalist. He is also fighting with Adam over the juice cleanse they are on—he wants to eat. And their relationship itself is fragile over the question of parenthood. Then there is Averie (Kai Heath), whose stalled acting career forces her to live in Shelly’s basement.
There are more stories. The siblings’ childhood friend, Jackie (K. O’Rourke), unloads her own woes. Jackie, who’s white, grew up in this Black neighborhood and was Donnie’s last girlfriend before he came out. Now 40 and living in New York, she is pregnant from an affair with a married man.
Moments to reflect
But the main story is Dot. One minute, she is here in the present, the next, she doesn’t recognize members of her family. At times, thinks she is interacting with her long-deceased husband. The ingredients for a powerful drama are there, but much of the power and poignancy are lost under layers and layers of jokes, and some over-the-top characterizations that evoke a TV show requiring a laugh every 20 seconds. It often undermines the beautiful story that Domingo tells.
There were very few moments that gave us or the characters something to reflect upon. Heath and O’Rourke as Jackie and Averie spew their lines so fast I must admit I missed some of the substance of what they’re saying. Often the dialogue sounds like a contest of who can talk louder and faster.
But there were also some very profound moments as we watch Dot try to come to grips with what is happening. The underplayed character of the caregiver, Fidel (who speaks little English), is the most sensitive toward Dot and her struggle. At one point, Dot, frustrated, tries to get her kids to play a game that will show them what she is going through. Another touching moment has Adam dance with Dot, whom she thinks he is her husband.
There’s also beauty in the way Domingo so naturally blends his characters of different colors, sexualities, and nationalities. It is an everyday family facing an issue that all must deal with, despite differences. And set designer William Boles has created a beautiful kitchen and living room to remind us that these are middle-class people in a middle-class home.
For me, the main problem lay not with the play, but with the direction, from the playwright himself. You might think that no one knows better what he wants the audience to see than a director with his own script. But doctors don’t treat themselves, lawyers don’t represent themselves, and many authors should leave the audio-book reading duties to somebody else. In this case, Domingo’s strong script could be better in the hands of another director. That said, the audience was laughing away, particularly when the dialogue throws in curse words. While the light-hearted nature of such a serious subject didn’t appeal to me, it was clearly enjoyed by many others.
What, When, Where
Dot. Written and directed by Colman Domingo. Through October 20, 2019 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
All buildings on the People’s Light campus are ADA-compliant. Accessible parking spaces are available on site. Patrons can purchase wheelchair-accessible seating online or by calling the box office. Complimentary companion seats are available for patrons who require a paid personal-care attendant.
There will be a relaxed performance of Dot on October 18 at 7:30pm. There will open-captioned performances on October 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. Visit online for details.