“Dot” explores coping with dementia in a modern world
DETROIT, Mich. – In an old home with a rotary phone, a woman is confusing the past and the present, and losing bits of herself and her daily life skills. (Go to the cupboard for salt, and come back with Oreo cookies. Order your daughter to buy a Christmas tree, and then be surprised by the sight of it in your living room.) Meanwhile all around her swirl her family and the almost-like-family members, each working through other problems, while also coming to terms with her condition.
Dot, by Colman Domingo, is a funny and touching experience. At moments it will hit you deeply, whether or not you’ve ever had a friend or family member losing precious pieces of themselves to dementia, or wondered and worried if your own genes are even now conspiring against you. Like life, it will also make you laugh out loud at small foibles and wry observations.
Dot (Madelyn Porter) has been the glue of this African-American family for decades, having raised a trio of talented kids who’ve dispersed to diverse lives. Oldest daughter Shelly (Tracey Conyer Lee) feels that the fun part of herself also long ago disappeared, and now she has all she can handle as a lawyer, single mom and the primary attendant for her mother‘s care. She is so exhausted that she tricks Dot into thinking it’s bedtime at 10 a.m. just so she herself can have a respite. (When her mother protests at how light it is outside, Shelly convinces her that’s the northern lights.)
The problem is that Shelly doesn’t know how much her siblings can help. And they in turn don’t want to believe that much help is needed. Middle child Donnie (Curtis Wiley), a writer in New York, comes for Christmas with new husband Adam (Christopher Corporandy). Donnie’s income from writing has evaporated faster than you can say “The internet,” and his marriage has hit a bump in the road. Not to mention he also agreed to Adam’s juice cleanse idea just a few days before the holidays, and now they’re fighting in the kitchen about sex and fried chicken.
Speaking of the web, baby of the family Averie (Shawntay Dalon) later makes her grand entrance. Like the other two, she was an artistically talented child who recently gained fame as a YouTube sensation. But whatever she was able to monetize from that has evaporated, and she’s now living in Shelly’s basement. She too denies at first that much is wrong with Mom. And besides, nursing homes are what white people do.
The play is set in a Philly neighborhood that has seen better days. Now, Dot rants about the neighbors who drive big cars but can’t even keep their front porches looking decent. Jackie (Maggie Meyer), a white friend of her children, has hung on to her dead parents‘ house – and a teenage crush on Donnie – years after she herself fled the city. She too makes a Christmastime pilgrimage to the old neighborhood with other worries on her mind.
The show offers subtle themes on the various levels of cognitive abilities and memories that we all struggle with. In one powerful scene Donnie is asked to reenact the daily struggle of someone coping with dementia, and it reveals his own fragility. At another point someone muses how a trauma can trip any of us and keep us stuck at a moment. Jackie never got past that unattainable love for Donnie, and Dot keeps returning to certain memories of her late husband.
The rhythms of Domingo’s writing are sharp, and the plot – this simple-but-complex intertwining of lives and daily challenges – captures us for most of the show. There is a slight letdown near the end of the final act though. The characters, minus Dot, draw together to talk and resolve some of their issues with dialog that seems a little too pat. But the final moments bring us back in again, with a final touching image of Dot and her family.
Dot features the usual strong technical and artistic support, including scenic designer Lauren Mills, costume designer Christianne Myers, and lighting designer Ben Green. But on opening night, there were a few moments where actors could not be heard distinctly, even in such a small space.
The cast, under the direction of Saheem Ali, is almost uniformly strong, each having a turn to engage the audience in the story. From Meyer’s frantic gut-spilling to more fast-and-furious arguments and make-ups between the kids (and kid-in-law), Conyer Lee, Wiley, Corporandy and Dalon. Porter handles well the challenging portrayal of someone experiencing the good and bad moments of a dementia patient. She is strong and opinionated, frail and confused, funny and furious. Special kudos too to Artun Kircali’s sweet Fidel, the not-so-certified but very caring part-time caretaker, who dotes on Dot, longs for his own mother in the old country, and sees in this black family from echoes of his own back in Khazakstan.