One of the most satisfying things about going to the theater is being fooled. If you go, I'll bet that's one of the reasons. It has to do with real people right in front of you, creating a world and getting you to buy in.
At the Wilma Theater, where Alan Ayckbourn's comedy My Wonderful Day starts off quietly and gets funnier and funnier as it plows forward for 90 minutes, I was completely bamboozled - and what a great feeling when I realized just how tightly the wool had been pulled.
The show, set in London, involves a pregnant Afro-Caribbean housekeeper whose 9-year-old daughter fakes a cold. So instead of sending the girl, Winnie, to school, her mom takes her to the posh London townhouse she's cleaning. Be very good, she tells Winnie, sit there and do your homework.
Which happens to be an essay-writing assignment. The topic: "My Wonderful Day."
Winnie immediately finds that the essay is writing itself because of what is going on around her - screaming adults, infidelity, a boatload of bad behavior.
What hoodwinked me at the Wilma was not the effusively sophomoric characters created by Ayckbourn (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests) or the inventive spinning stage set by Lee Savage. Or Richard Hamburger's smart direction, which occasionally has people walking in place while rooms move, creating the vertigo effect you get when your train sits on the rails and another moves by. Or Charles Coes' sprightly sound design that pops along as the play becomes a farce without all the usual doors.
What got me was 9-year-old Winnie. Where did the Wilma get this kid?, I wondered as I watched Lavita Shaurice, who, in real life, could've been, maybe, 10. She employed the meticulously controlled body language of a seasoned actress, with precise timing, rolling eyes, and astonished-kid gapes. She nailed the little-girl vulnerability. I wanted to take her home with me.
Well, if I had, my wife would have taken exception; Lavita Shaurice, it turns out, is about three times the age of the Winnie she so convincingly depicts.
My first hint of this came post-show, when I opened the program to see who she was. (I seldom look before or during the performance - why spoil the stage fun by jumping into the reality of actors' bios?)
The hint was that Shaurice was a Temple grad and, as a schoolkid, had been in Philadelphia Young Playwrights. I confirmed my suspicions that I'd been snookered when I asked Wilma management whether she could really be at the high end of her mid-20s.
She is, and fine actor as well. And she's backed by an able cast: Opal Alladin as her mother; Kate Eastwood Norris and David Andrew Macdonald as the hell-bent homeowners; Kelly O'Sullivan as the hubby's squeaky squeeze; and John Zak as a general leech.
My Wonderful Day is a little play that in this production brings pleasure much greater than its theatrical heft. Coulda fooled me.