I juggled attending a Sunday matinee of Dot, a holiday-time family dramedy and the newest offering from Detroit Public Theatre's second season, with coordinating the arrival of my parents for a long holiday visit. Taking a break from garden-variety disputes about breakfast venues and car rental arrangements for an afternoon of theater centered around a family attempting to come to grips with the onset of dementia in the titular character, Dot felt initially like the least escapist form of entertainment possible.
And yet, in an era of entertainment that can offer much in the way of dazzling special effects, theater retains its relevance precisely in its ability to present human-scale drama, and the script by award-winning actor, playwright, and director Colman Domingo deals humorously with an array of difficult subjects that are deeply relatable.
"When we read this play last year we fell in love with it," says Sarah Clare Corporandy, one of theater's three co-founders and producing director. "It is a play about real people, about [a] family and the many different types of people that make up that family. They are coming together at Christmas, bringing all that is going on in their lives into one house. I had the chance to see it in New York last year and I laughed, I cried, I empathized.
"We are so thrilled to share this story with Detroit. While this play does deal with Alzheimer's, there is humor around that, around how we deal with issues of aging parents, around family, and the way in which we love, fight, and take care of each other. Colman does a beautiful job of bringing all of these elements together in order to tell one cohesive story."
Though the main conflict of the play is anchored by the character of Dotty Shealy — a dynamic matriarch-in-decline, played with engaging humanity by actress and creator of several one-woman shows, Madelyn Porter — it is an ensemble effort. Every family is full of characters, and the success of a family gathering is only as good as the chemistry between them. Domingo's lively and layered dialogue flows naturally between these experienced players, invigorating a set of identifiable family roles with their own personality.
Dotty's children — the baby, the perfectionist older sister, the golden son — are played, respectively, by Shawntay Dalon as the outlandish Averie, Tracey Conyer Lee as overbearing Shelly, and Curtis Wiley as the sensitive Donnie. Lee charges the stage with stress as Shelly, who, in a classic big sister move, tries to hold it all together and deliver a happy Christmas for her young son and her deteriorating mother. The trials and triumphs of the Shealy family are supplemented by a talented supporting cast, including Chris Corporandy as Donnie's husband Adam, Artun Kircall as Dotty's part-time Khazickstani caregiver Fidel, and Maggie Meyer as the girl next door, prodigally returning home for the holidays with a bellyful of trouble.
"Saheem Ali, our director, worked to cast actors who possessed a strong inner likeness to their characters," says Chris Corporandy, who originally auditioned for the role of Fidel but was cast as Adam. "So he had to convince and coax me to pretty much play myself, which is a much more vulnerable thing to do as an actor. Additionally, Saheem worked to pull me back from the impulse to match the exuberant chaos of the Shealy family. Instead, he wanted me to be the quiet one, the support, the peacemaker. It's hard for a lot of actors — especially me — to resist the urge to make a bang onstage, so working to chill out and put more of myself into it was a crazy journey for me, and I thought an important one."
The cast feels utterly believable and familiar, invoking inside jokes, old feuds, and ritualized storytelling in the way of all holiday gatherings, but driven by the emotional urgency of seeing the foundation slipping away. Porter's performance as the decompensating centerpiece to this tight family unit is poignant and personal and funny — sometimes she is the lightning strike of drama, sometimes she is the oddly peaceful eye of the storm as everyone else struggles and rages around her.
Two tight and fast-moving acts are separated by a set change of epic proportions — which, entirely visible in the black-box setting of the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall in the Fisher Music Center, is a pretty fascinating process piece in and of itself. Following this matinee performance (as well as three others), the theater thoughtfully facilitated a "talk-back" session with an Alzheimer's counselor, and a handful of audience members stayed after the show to talk through some of the issues surrounding this family-rending later life issue. On issues of cognitive degeneration, issues of race, and issues of acceptance within the structure of family life, Dot is relevant, on point, and surprisingly cathartic. Whether you feel the need to take a break from real life holiday family drama, making time to see this holiday family drama is a terrific gift.
Dot runs at Detroit Public Theatre, 3749 Woodward Ave., Detroit; showtimes through Dec. 11. "Talk-back" sessions will follow the performances on Thursday, Dec. 1 (8 p.m.) and Wednesday, Dec. 7 (2 p.m.).