New Conservatory Theatre Center
Family gatherings during the December holidays are often a time of maneuvering about carefully on rather thin ice, with members skating gingerly around issues in order not to reopen past and often persistent cracks in relationships. For the Shealy family, skirting away from the one fact most want to ignore as they deal with their own problems is becoming increasingly impossible as the hours tick toward the annual family dinner and present opening under the tree. But oldest sibling Shelly is not about to let the others continue to hope that their mother’s increasing slips in memory are any more than just a slowly developing annoyance. She is primed this Christmas to put Mama’s Alzheimer’s firmly on the table for all to see and to demand the others accept the fact the mother they knew is not the mother they now have.
With asks of financial and care-giving help from members who claim they can do neither, Shelly is opening a Pandora’s Box of tensions that have been brewing for years. As a family’s shouts of anger and accusations of neglect tumble out in Colman Domingo’s 2016-premiering Dot, there is also a surprising abundance of ongoing laughs for the New Conservatory Theatre Center’s audience. What we witness is an all-too-familiar story of shock, denial, and despair many families with an aging member face in our world today. However, in this telling by this stellar cast with Domingo’s brilliant script, we also experience the sweetness, the humor, and the love that can be present as the family tragedy unfolds and as all – including the Alzheimer’s victim herself – move from avoidance and rejection toward an embracing understanding and acceptance of Mama’s new state of being.
The Dotty we first meet at the breakfast table is a quick-to-comment, fast-talking opinion-giver who describes herself as a “feminist before there was the word” and a proud member of the female gender who are “the tiddy of the world.” She does not hesitate to describe her daughter’s new curly, dyed hair as looking like a “mean pineapple” nor admitting, “I like my gays in handlebar mustaches and chaps.” But we soon see sudden, pregnant pauses when Dotty loses mid-sentence what she is saying. We witness her as she gets up to do something and seems to get lost or as she suddenly erupts into an angry shouting match with her daughter one minute and then slips into an acquiescent state of compliance the next.
Juanita Harris is nothing short of stunning as a Dotty who teeters between being lucid enough to recall memories of years past and being unable to remember that the Christmas tree she saw in the living room five minutes ago is the same one she is gleefully seeing now as if for the first time. Her facial expressions – especially her eyes – project vividly the joys of a sudden memory, outline the pain of an obvious something now unable to be recalled, and blur into a state of blank as if she is no longer present in the room. There are moments Dotty bristles with vitriol as she spits out, “Quit treating me like a child … I am your mother,” soon to be followed by her being led to bed like a shuffling, reluctant child who readily accepts that the “aurora borealis” now makes the night Philly sky appear like daytime (when of course, it is in reality still mid-day). Juanita Harris is delightful, endearing, and heartbreaking in what is nothing short than an award-worthy performance as Dotty.
Eldest daughter Shelly is a single-mom lawyer (and the one with the pineapple-like hair today, the red flop tomorrow) who is trying to balance her own demanding life and an ever-increasing need to be her mother’s full-time caregiver. She is the one who day after day must listen to the same stories (“How many times are you going to tell me that?”) and answer the same questions (“You ask me one more question, I’m going to light myself on fire”). She reports in exasperation, “I am going berserk;” and she is insistent that when her siblings arrive for Christmas, they are going to take some of the emotional and financial burden off her shoulders. Kimberly Ridgeway’s Shelly is a woman on edge who needs that 10 a.m. shot watermelon vodka to begin her day. She is a tightly wound ball of nerves with interweaving strands of genuine care, irritated frustration, panicked worrying, and bossy commands. She is a force to be contended with by all and yet a person clearly vulnerable any minute to her own breakdown of emotional well-being.
Her prime focus to seek needed help is her brother, Donnie (Marcus J. Paige), and his husband of seven years, Adam (Greg Ayers), who arrive already on the precarious brink of their own relationship explosion. A multi-day “juice cleansing” that Adam wants and Donnie does not, a desire for building a family that Donnie wants but not Adam, and a dry spell of no sex between the two due to what is probably the beginning of a long list of other current mis-matches in their joint, marital desires.
Freelance musicologist Donnie’s first response to Shelly’s request for financial help is a flippant, “My money is funny, and my change is strange.” Donnie accuses Shelly of being “like a battering ram” in her persistent requests for him to wake up and face what is happening to their mother; but a Christmas Eve game of “virtual dementia” affords Marcus Paige the opportunity for an arrestingly powerful performance sequence and for his Donnie, a transformative moment for his role as son, brother, and husband.
Averie is the third sibling – a sister who lives in Shelly’s basement but one Shelly no longer speaks to. Every entrance of Avery is a bombastic occurrence, with her stomping in her array of boots dressed in outlandish outfits that always are splashed somewhere with leopard spots. Brittany Nicole Sims’ Averie seems only to talk in a shouting voice accompanied by arms that move in all directions at the same time. Even though she is broke, she seems always to be in a jiving, joking manner – quick to tell of her agent’s latest offer for her to be a participant in a “celebrity mud fight” or a “sing your ass off” contest (both of which will give her a lot of exposure but no promise of cash). Avery is mama’s baby, and she plays that role to the hilt while also being slow to recognize her mama is having more than just some occasional lapses of memory.
Outside this family circle enter two others. Fidel is the nine-year asylum seeker from Kazakhstan who is now a day-to-day caregiver of Dotty. Lore Gonzales’s Fidel is a model of patience, empathy, and sensitivity. With Dotty, they often move together into a special space where time seems to pause for a few minutes of unconditional caring, unquestioning acceptance. He is the one to whom Dotty can confess how much she actually forgets and the one to whom she can admit, “I’m scared.” Lore Gonzales is another of the night’s star performances.
Almost as disruptive as Avery’s entrances are the continually unexpected ones of Jackie, the spurned, high-school girlfriend of gay Donnie – a forty-year-old who has never gotten over that lost love that in fact was never to be. Kim Donovan plays the former neighbor who is in many ways accepted by the Shealy’s as a family member. However, her own set of personal trials and hang-ups (along with her constant insisting “I should leave” when things get tense but then never does) at times becomes a distraction and seems to add not enough to the story for the amount of script and stage time she takes. With emotions constantly ready to burst once again into tears, Avery is a burden this family and story does not really need.
ShawnJ West directs the two-plus hour (with one intermission) Dot with a pace and pattern that helps us get to know the “real” Dotty of old before we must encounter fully the emerging Dotty with her sadly, unavoidable future. He allows us to see openly all the flaws of those around her in order to appreciate later the shifts they together make. His direction and the playwright’s scripts lead us to laugh aloud long enough to be able later to shed a few, genuine tears, realizing fully what is being lost and the sacrifices the family is now lovingly willing to make.
The set designed Kuo-Hao Lo itself undergoes a major transformation as the play progresses. The first act’s cozy kitchen with its bright colors and tight spaces gives way to a second act’s large, homey living room packed with family memories in pictures and art and decorated for a Christmas for Dotty to enjoy today and everyone else to remember tomorrow. The costumes of Marisely Cortes and the wigs of Jessica Carter are major helps in defining the various personalities and are not without the ability to provide their own, select chuckles. James Goode’s sound design includes music to help us recall what it is like to be home for the holidays while the lighting of William Campbell both brings onstage events into sharp focus and allows moments of reflection as lights dim and shadows increase.
New Conservatory Theatre Center’s website declares, “We infuse our work with joy, kindness, empathy, curiosity – and a large dollop of humor.” If one adds “heart” to that list, Colman Domingo’s Dot is a prime example of the NCTC fulfilling its pledge to the Bay Area, theater-going community. And that is quite an accomplishment when the subject is one so unnerving and scary as Alzheimer’s disease.
Rating: 4.5 E
Dot continues through April 3, 2022 in performance on the Decker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets are available at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.nctcsf.org or by calling 415-861-8972.
Photo Credits: Lois Tema