Our scene is West Philly. We have an African American family, three siblings whose mother, Dotty, is in decline. Responsibility for her care falls most heavily on one of her children, who wants the others to step up. It’s a classic family tragedy.
Yet Dot by Colman Domingo, running through Oct. 20 at People’s Light in Malvern, is sparklingly funny. It’s a tightly crafted, affectionate portrayal of people who, while eccentric, stuck, and fraught with shortcomings, attract us anyway.
Dot isn’t going to lie to you. Dotty isn’t going to get any better, and the siblings have to reach past their issues and join hands. Somehow Domingo makes us laugh throughout, even as we see the terrible truth.
This fine production is a second straight triumph (after Dominique Morisseau’s Mud Row, set in West Chester) for People’s Light, which is building a name for itself with leading diverse playwrights creating shows set in local neighborhoods.
Author and director Domingo was last here with Lights Out – Nat “King” Cole, which he coauthored (and which memorably brought Hollywood star Dulé Hill to Malvern). The Philly-born Domingo welcomed playgoers at opening night on Saturday. “We wanted it to have a real West Philly, down-home feeling,” he said.
We get that at first sight of William Boles’ stage setting, a loving recreation of a West Philly home, all features tuned to about 1979, including steel-tube-frame kitchen chairs and rotary phone — “You still have a rotary?” is one of the night’s funny lines.
It’s Christmastime. Dotty (Natalie Carter, who lacerates us with Dotty’s piercing moments of clarity and descents into unknowing) expects a blue spruce. Her devoted, burdened, complaining daughter Shelly (the tremendous Zuhairah) is a lawyer with career on hold. She spends most of her time at Dotty’s house, and she gets so frustrated with her (“She’s in then out, then in and out, and out again”) that she hilariously threatens to substitute a hated artificial tree from the basement.
Eventually she gets the blue spruce. Dotty comes upon it in the living room — and screams in joy! In a few moments, she forgets it’s there. Which hurts. So much. But then Dotty rediscovers the tree — and screams again.
We meet Jackie (K. O’Rourke, funny but maybe a little too frenetic), the white former girlfriend of Shelly’s brother Donnie (played with alternating comic anxiousness and existential dread by André Ward). Donnie has since come out (to Jackie’s chagrin) and is now in a troubled marriage with Adam (Parker Drown, in one of the production’s best turns, empathetic, nurturing, a born caretaker). We also meet Fidel from Kazakhstan (the persuasive Tyler Elliott), hired by Shelly to look after Dotty during the day.
And then … ta-daaa! … the youngest sib, Averie, played unforgettably by Kai Heath. Averie is a would-be model with unlikely dreams of stardom. Like everyone else, she has not discovered her life’s path yet, but, unexpectedly, she matures before our eyes. She enters as a Wannabe Actress, gyrating, overdressing, doing the crazy, but she sees what her mother is becoming, and she makes a grown-up decision.
Domingo is well aware he’s treading near newly-minted stereotypes. And the play verges toward being overstuffed. But he makes us care about these people as people. And when he hits us, he hits us hard. Dot is a good evening’s theater that lands right on the dot.
Through Oct. 20 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern