Review: ‘Dot’ at Everyman Theatre

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There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.

When Everyman Theatre (“Everyman”) Founding Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi left the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Kentucky last year, he did not come home empty-handed. In November, Baltimore audiences enjoyed the first of his discoveries with the sold-out East Coast Premiere of Jen Silverman’s The Roommate. This weekend, the second of his must-have Humana finds, Dot, made its Baltimore/DC Premiere at Everyman. For Lancisi, who is also directing the production, it was love at first sight.

From the moment I saw Dot, I knew I wanted to do it here at Everyman for our audiences.

Sharon Hope with the cast of Dot. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Dot tells the story of a family from West Philadelphia coming to terms with the fact that its aging matriarch has Alzheimer’s disease. Dot’s eldest child, 45-year old single mom Shelly, has been taking care of her. As Dotty’s condition rapidly declines, Shelly’s anxiety level – and resentment toward her oblivious siblings – increases. She decides to take advantage of the family’s annual gathering for Christmas to confront her brother and sister about their mom’s failing health and to discuss a more sustainable caretaking situation.

Shelly is played by Everyman Resident Company member, Dawn Ursula, who is in fine form for this emotionally-challenging role. It would be easy to play Shelly as a one-note character. She’s exasperated; not only is she responsible for her mother’s health and safety, she has a young son of her own. Additionally, she is a Public Defender, one of the most notoriously overworked jobs in the legal world. Ursula gives a standout performance, conveying not only Shelly’s understandable exasperation, but also her love for her mother, her fears about what the future will bring, and the pain that occurs when a person you’ve loved your whole life cannot remember who you are.

Sharon Hope is sublime as the Dotty, the afflicted matriarch of the Shealy family. Hope portrays Dot’s cycling through varying levels of lucidity with heartbreaking realism. In one moment, she is sassy and in control; in the next, she is frightened and confused. Hope’s nuanced performance embodies not only her character’s frustrations, but also her courage and quiet dignity. Her portrayal is vulnerable and real; it is the kind of performance that has you talking on the way home about your own family and the inevitable tolls we all pay as we age.

Playwright Colman Domingo. Photo courtesy of Everyman Theatre.

It probably doesn’t sound like it from my description thus far, but Dot is quite funny. Playwright Colman Domingo – himself an accomplished actor on television (Fear the Walking Dead) and in film (Selma, The Butler, and Lincoln), as well as on the stage – felt strongly that in order to be realistic, there had to be humor. Domingo has said, “I like to have comedy and tragedy banging up against people’s heads… Whether I deal with death or aging, the only way to tackle it is with honesty.”

One of the characters that inserts a lot of humor into this production is Donnie, Dotty’s 40-year old middle child, who is ably played by Yaegel T. Welch. Welch is an expressive physical actor and whether he is secretly cheating on his juice fast or busting a move in a living room dance party, he leaves you smiling. Rob Jansen, as Donnie’s husband, Adam, is wonderful. Though Adam is facing some relationship problems with Donnie, he is 100% there for the Shealy family. Jansen’s portrayal of Adam radiates compassion. In fact, perhaps the most beautiful scene in the play features Jansen’s Adam lovingly interacting with the fading Dotty.

Jackie, played by Everyman Resident Company member, Megan Anderson, is an old neighbor of the Shealys and former girlfriend of Donnie’s. West Philadelphia born and raised, Jackie now lives in Harlem and has returned to the old neighborhood because she is facing a crisis of her own. Anderson’s Jackie is funny from her very first scene.

Paige Hernandez plays Averie, the baby of the Shealy clan. Hernandez’s Averie is a high-energy dynamo, bringing humor (and volume) to every scene she’s in. Ryan Carlo Dalusung, on the other hand, is quiet and understated as Fidel, conveying compelling emotional depth as Dotty’s part time caregiver.

Of all the fine technical work on Dot, the warm, homey set by Scenic Designer James Fouchard impressed me the most. West Philly row houses are narrow, but deep, making the cross section viewed by the audience wider than even Everyman’s generous stage. Cleverly, Fouchard constructed the set in two parts. The transition during intermission drew applause at this feat of technical stagecraft.

We live in a time when people live longer than they did historically. As our elderly population continues to grow, issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other age-related conditions are coming to the fore. Dot fills an important space among works depicting these struggles. Having a family member whose memory and ability to care for themselves is in decline is an increasingly common experience. It is therefore crucial that Alzheimer’s disease is not treated like cancer once was – something about which people only spoke in whispers as though it was somehow shameful.

Dawn Ursula, Paige Hernandez, and Yaegel T. Welch in Dot. Photo by Stan Barouh.

As Vincent Lancisi says in his Director’s Note, “Watching Dot fight to hang on to her past, her future, or even this moment, is devastating and true to life. Alzheimer’s disease is such a prevalent issue in today’s society [that] Dot, I’m afraid, is a timely play and is sure to become a classic. It will withstand the test of time.”

Dot, currently playing at Everyman Theatre, is a well-balanced mix of drama and comedy. Like life. The actors skillfully use their talents to tell Colman Domingo’s compelling story in a conscientious, compassionate, and humorous way. A play addressing Alzheimer’s disease may seem like an unlikely Christmas production, but Dot isn’t a play about an illness; it is a play about family and the comforts of a place called home.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.

Dot plays through January 8, 2017, at Everyman Theatre – 315 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-2208, or purchase them online.

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