Three Bone Theatre Makes Its Point with Colman Domingo’s ‘Dot’
Since their return to live performance last October, Three Bone Theatre has been contracting and then expanding as they adapt to The Arts Factory, the company’s new base of operations on West Trade Street. They were breathing in at first, perhaps, 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 lockdowns, Prisoner 34042 and the company’s 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, which ran 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, which runs through May 21, detains us longer (two hours and 10 minutes) 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 for driving 95 mph, 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 hires 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 her mom’s car keys, she uses her disorientation to trick Dot 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, Shelly locks Dotty in her bedroom, astonishing her sibs. Convinced that their mom is planning to kill herself — driving around at 95 mph 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 gift wrap,” 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 matriarch from Philly.
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 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 then 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 “gift wrap” in the slightest, but maybe that’s the point. Regardless, 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.
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 catching up with her old flame’s mom upon her return home 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, and in fact, Jackie is Jewish, further broadening the palette. In matters of racial tension, 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.
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