Arts and Culture
11058763_10153100375792770_8479838015788964124_nCourtesy of Actors Theatre; photo by Bill Brymer

Honest, humorous and, at times, alarmingly difficult to watch, “Dot” is a devastatingly flawless work of contemporary theatre– playing with characters who are both so familiar, but also layered deep enough, that everyone can find themselves in the intricate, intertwined struggles of this production.

Playwright Colman Domingo tackles the story of the Shealy family in their West Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s holiday time, which is stressful enough, but this year is different. Dotty, the mother of three adult children, has begun struggling with dementia.

It opens as Shelly (Sharon Washington) is attempting to get her mother (Marjorie Johnson) to eat breakfast. It’s 10 a.m., and the struggle to get Dotty to concentrate is apparent. A friend of the family, Jackie (Megan Byrne), has returned to the neighborhood after living in New York; and while she says she is simply coming home for a visit, Shelly isn’t buying it. While Shelly tries to extract the exact reason for Jackie’s sudden return, conversation with Dotty begins to loop. She asks multiple times what day and time it is–almost as if she is trying to ground herself in a sense of place–but often, to Shelly’s dismay and aggravation.

Finally, after Dotty says Shelly’s current hairstyle makes her look like an “angry pineapple,” Shelly snaps. Miffed and hurt, Dotty goes into the next room to use the bathroom, and Shelly confides in Jackie that Dotty was diagnosed with dementia about a year prior, and though she tried to keep it from the family, her mental capacity is deteriorating steadily.

Then in turn, after a little more prompting, Jackie admits that she is pregnant by a married man with two children–not exactly what she imagined for her life at 40–and that she needs some space from the situation to determine how to proceed. Conversation turns back to how Shelly, a single mother and public defense attorney, plans on balancing her schedule to care for her mother.

She says that while she currently has hired a Kazakh refugee named Fidel (Vichet Chum) to care for her mother two days a week at $50 a day, it is time to start looking toward more long term care options; something she hasn’t discussed with her mother, but plans on talking over with her siblings, Donnie (Kevin R. Free) and Averie (Adrienne C. Moore) when they come over the next night for Christmas Eve.

The next scene opens in a dark kitchen. Donnie, who came in from New York that evening, is covertly rummaging through the cupboards for a midnight snack–that is, until he hears his husband, Adam (Sean Dugan), pattering down the stairs. “You’ve been opening a lot of cupboards for just a glass of water,” he declares.

Their tiff about Donnie’s betrayal of eating a drumstick and three oatmeal cookies–the couple was on a juice cleanse–quickly devolves into talk of how they haven’t had sex for a month, makeup sex at that, and that Donnie doesn’t care for Adam’s friends, skinny-jean wearing guys with backwards-facing baseball caps who do drugs.

Just as their argument begins to completely erupt after Donnie says that he doesn’t feel that Adam finds him attractive anymore, Dotty comes downstairs, gleeful to see “her boys” home. Shelly is woken up by the noise, and joins the group. During their conversations, Donnie and Adam both notice Dotty’s symptoms and while they, especially Donnie, want to dismiss it as just forgetfulness that comes with aging, it is painfully apparent that she is no longer fully cogent.

The next evening, when the whole family is gathered for Christmas Eve dinner–including Averie, a one-time YouTube sensation who currently works as a cashier, and Jackie, who still carries a torch for Donnie who was her high school sweetheart–Dotty asks her children to do something for her.

She gives them a pair of latex gloves with the knuckles taped together to simulate what arthritic joints feel like; goggles to simulate glaucoma; and a pair of headphones which plays a ceaseless buzzing sound that impedes concentration–all of this to understand what a patient with dementia deals with on a daily basis. Donnie volunteers to test the paraphernalia, but within a few minutes of attempting to carry out simple tasks, he has a full-blown panic attack.

Overnight, several family members have revelations about how they love, memories they hold onto, and how people process both happiness and trauma. The next morning, the family realizes that they need to act soon, for Dotty’s sake–but that they need to include her in the process of deciding her own future.

A particular highlight of Domingo’s skillful writing is in how he gives Dotty autonomy over her condition. She is able to express to her family that while she is scared, she wants to record as many memories as she can, specifically for Shelly’s 9-year-old son, Jason. Johnson’s performance as Dotty is heart wrenchingly sincere, strong and deeply developed.

When watching the production, it is obvious that Domingo had written the character of Shelly with Washington in mind; she embodies Shelly through mannerisms, patterns of speech and a level of raw emotion that exudes comfort on the stage. Her chemistry with all the characters, but especially with the hilarious Adrienne C. Moore and vivid Megan Byrne, is scintillating.

And on the note of chemistry, Donnie and Adam play a married couple with a seemingly genuine level of sensitivity and passion.

The luscious set design (Dane Laffrey) is a real treat, and mimics the dual theatrical and representational nature of the acting. “Dot” is an elevated version of reality; one in which Domingo grapples with many complex issues like race, social class, sexual orientation and depreciation of neighborhoods, yet approaches these subjects in a way that transcends any feeling of exclusion.

Just as in real life, there is no single plotline to be developed and magically solved. “Dot” is an elaborately woven, emotionally vibrant production that encourages audience members to face whichever issue most resonates with them–aging, caretaking, a midlife crisis, fear of the unknown; and leaves them feeling just as powerless, or perhaps as empowered, as the characters on stage.

“Dot” is part of the 39th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It runs through April 12.