Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents Dot
By Perry Tannenbaum
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
–Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”
Since their return to live performance last October, Three Bone Theatre has been contracting and then expanding as they adapt to The Arts Factory, their new base of operations on W. Trade Street. They were breathing in at first, perhaps, with a compact one-woman show, and now they’re breathing out. Open was smaller in every way than either of the two productions Three Bone had streamcast during the QC’s lockdowns, Prisoner 34042 and their New Black Playwrights Fest. Smaller cast, shorter running time, and probably smaller audience.
From what I’ve been able to discern, each of Three Bone’s 2022 shows has been bigger, longer, and better attended than the one before. With Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children back in March, we saw a larger cast, a longer show, and actual scenery. Meanwhile, armed with masks and vaccination cards, more theatergoers seemed ready to venture out into the night to see a relevant post-apocalyptic drama.
Colman Domingo’s Dot detains us longer and offers us more characters to consider, though it’s clear that Philadelphia matriarch Dottie Shealy is far and away the one that we – and her three children – should be most concerned about. It’s the Christmas holiday season in Philly, a time when the children converge around a tall spruce tree with enough lead time to collaborate on the decorations. Shelly, the eldest and a lawyer, is holding down the fort while her sibs, Donnie and Averie, have the freedom to flounder in their careers.
Shelly rightfully feels that she must watch her mom like a hawk. Ever since Dotty was hauled into a local police station after speeding at 95mph, unthinkable anywhere near Philly, Shelly has been unsure what bizarre lapse Mom might have next. With the onset of dementia and a diagnosis of progressing Alzheimer’s, Dotty shuttles between the self her children have always known and somebody prone to forgetting names and events, losing track of where she is and what time it is, or coming back from her kitchen with a bag of Oreos instead of the salt she went in for.
Unable to keep tabs on Dotty around-the-clock, Shelly has hired a gentle young Indian man, Fidel, to help her out. But Shelly is out of patience and out of her depth, so she has become a bit bossy and toxic. Not only has she hidden Mom’s car keys, she uses her disorientation to trick her into signing legal papers she doesn’t understand and going to bed in the middle of the day. Calling for a family conference with Donnie and Averie deep in Act 2, she locks Dotty in her bedroom, astonishing her sibs. Convinced that Mom is planning to kill herself – driving around at 95mph is a serious symptom – Shelly has also developed a paranoid attitude toward Fidel, suspecting him of helping Dotty to hatch her plan.
Woven into all this dramatic intrigue – and all of Shelly’s questionable choices – you’ll find that Domingo has provided plenty of opportunities for comedy. Shelly’s deceitful and aggressive coping mechanisms compromise her character for us long before her sibs arrive on the scene. So we can see why Donnie and Averie would both impugn her credibility and resent her bossiness, no matter how stressed she may be. Aside from that pushback, Dotty can be quite formidable herself when she’s lucid, with quite the sharp tongue on her.
Perceptive, too. She could always see that Donnie was “gay as giftwrap,” even before her daughters knew. Nor is Dotty totally blind to her own decline, despite all the resistance she puts up against Shelly. It’s hard to believe that Dotty would off herself on Christmas as a reaction to her own deterioration, when all the family is gathered ‘round, but there is definitely something secretive about her interactions with Fidel.
Navigating Dotty’s mood swings, mental lapses, and surreptitious plotting takes a performer over some tricky terrain, requiring sudden hairpin turns; but if you saw Lillie Ann Oden as the wary, savvy, and pragmatic wife in The Children, you’ll likely have little doubt that she can tackle this black Philly matriarch. With Corey Mitchell back as director, after an all-too-common two-year hiatus from the local scene, you might find that Oden still exceeds your high expectations with her saltiness, her increasing confusion, and her sheer naturalness.
While Dotty and her struggles are comparatively fresh onstage, experienced actors and theatergoers will likely recognize the regathering sibs as somewhat formulaic. It won’t be the first time we’ve seen one of a set of sibs turn out to be disagreeably disapproving and controlling, nor will it be a shock to see a sister or brother who is insouciantly adrift, unsettled, charismatic, and irresponsible. Kookiness is often in the mix. Domingo takes pains to give Valerie Thames as Shelly, Marvin King as Donnie, and Nasha Shandri as Averie distinctive personalities and detailed backstories for them to inhabit.
You’re still forgiven if you occasionally find yourself feeling that these capable actors are filling in time-tested sitcom slots or a template lifted from Crimes of the Heart and skillfully refurbished. Thames gets to switch during intermission from a pineapple hair color to a bright raspberry, signaling that she may be the responsible sister but has no intention of remaining anonymous – at the same time showing us that Shelly can be vulnerable, sensitive to Mom’s criticisms.
Long before Shandri has made her first entrance, we’re aware that Averie is the most outré and unbridled of the Shealys. Yet we’re very quickly aware that there’s a loving, conciliatory core to Averie. Over and over, we see that the estrangement between the two sisters is strictly one-sided. It’s Averie who counsels Shelly, with full persuasiveness of a sister, that changing hair colors isn’t quite the right path. She must ditch Andre instead, her hairdresser. Off-handedly and gradually, Shandri and King reveal to us that Shelly undervalues both her sibs.
Likely an autobiographical creation from Domingo, Donnie is the sibling who most breaks the sitcom mold. King is a moderately daring casting choice from Mitchell, not reminding me of giftwrap at all, but he’s immensely likable without hardly trying. Although he never earmarks him as his parents’ favorite, Domingo clearly designates Donnie as the most beloved of the Shealys. Two additional characters are devoted to double-underlining this point, Tommy Prudenti as Donnie’s husband and Amy Dunn as his high school sweetheart.
Jackie, still carrying a torch for her old flame (among other things), is a useful character from the very beginning, long before she tries to come between Donnie and Adam. Frank conversations between Dotty and her children seem to have ceased years before her current aging crisis, and as the houselights go down, Shelly and her mom have no plausible reason to exchange information about each other that we need to know as quickly as possible. Jackie’s coming back home and catching up with her old flame’s mom, after years away in New York, opens up windows for us into what’s happening with both Dotty and Shelly.
Dunn’s slant on Jackie takes into account that she is not at all opposed to homewrecking, so she can be a bit brash and irritating, though she usefully questions the crueler aspects of Shelly’s caretaking. She brings out a lot from Dottie and Shelly in the beginning, but it’s Prudenti as Adam who really brings out the best in his mother-in-law, unexpectedly reminding her of her dead husband. Due to his marital issues with Donnie, we get to feel that we know Donnie nearly as well as Dottie and Shelly, though Domingo overestimates our interest in seeing them sort out their love lives.
Both Jackie and Adam, interestingly enough, are white, so there’s a refreshing lack of racial tension in Dot, though the meanness of Philly’s inner city lurks plainly enough in the background. In fact, Jackie is Jewish, further broadening the palette. In these matters, Domingo is most subtle, for there is a shared prejudice against Fidel among the younger Shealys, leading them to underestimate the foreigner, either through unwarranted suspicion or dismissiveness. Our dear Dottie is the first to properly gauge his intelligence and worth.
In his theatrical debut, computer science grad student Satheesh Kandula gives us a marvelously mild account of Fidel, diffident and polite but not at all servile. Kandula is hardly a credible target for xenophobia, but we’re not terribly surprised to see it happening – and it might give us pause if we consider the possibility that Fidel may understand Dottie better than anyone else onstage. What he and his co-conspirator wind up concocting for Christmas turns out to be the best lesson of the night.
Only Jackie calls Dottie “Mrs. Shealy,” and absolutely nobody presumes to call her Dot. So why is that Domingo’s title? I’ve yet to read a review that mulls that question over, though I consider the answers – pragmatic or literary – worth pondering. “Dottie” might hint too broadly that Domingo’s protagonist has gone crazy, a matter that the playwright would surely prefer to remain ambiguous.
The other reason for the title is about what Domingo does wish to say. He’s using the diminutive of Dorothy and Dottie to emphasize that Dottie, in her drift toward dementia and Alzheimer’s, is becoming different, “a diminished thing” as Robert Frost would say. At the same time, she remains the same. That’s the main point of Dot.