Parental Guidance Suggested

Leslie McDonel is a legendarily terrifying foster kid who meets her match in the ultra-patient Cheryl Denson in DCT's latest "serious" effort.
Robin Sachs

Like most institutions that seek to divert children, Dallas Children's Theatre is serious about mixing entertainment and edification. Surely one reason parents purchase theater tickets is to counterbalance the perceived sugary sleaze of American pop culture with exposure to "finer things" like the stage. But like most of its peers, DCT must beware the trap of sentimentalizing childhood until the company's important lessons are rejected or ignored by contemporary preadolescents, a group that's smarter and more sophisticated--thanks to aforementioned, underrated sugary sleaze--than ever before.

Recently, Dallas Children's Theatre has struggled to program in each season at least one show that squarely confronts tragedies that make adults squirm and kids stare and ask too many questions. AIDS, dying children, homelessness and the stigma of Down's syndrome have been dramatized recently on their stage between the fluffier fare. The Great Gilly Hopkins, DCT's current production, manages to seem less topical but more unsparingly honest in its tale of an abandoned adolescent who screws up her own best chance at happiness. Director Robyn Flatt works from David Paterson and Steve Liebman's musical version of Katherine Paterson's novel, and Flatt and her cast do find "issues" here: racism, the questionable and disruptive practice of foster care, the cruel treatment of the developmentally disabled by their peers. But as much as I've applauded DCT's stabs at relevance, and as expertly and touchingly as the cast of Gilly Hopkins performs in their best moments, the show was too sobering for its own educational good, straddling a smudgy line between junior high school cautionary tale and Greek tragedy.

Leslie McDonel plays the title character as a tomboyish troublemaker dropped early into the foster care system by a mysterious mother named "Courtney," a woman about whom Gilly Hopkins spends almost the whole play fantasizing. Grimly thrilled by her reputation as a wrecker of temporary homes, Gilly is finally assigned to an unconventional household that wears her down with sheer patience: solicitous, Bible-quoting Maime (Cheryl Denson, a generous but prickly mamma who's most recently directed musicals at Lyric Stage); her other foster child, the Sesame Street-loving, "special needs" W.E. (Michael Turner); and Mr. Randolph (Walter Hardts), the blind black man next door who eats dinner with them every Monday night. Gilly starts off beating up boys on the playground, and writing a malicious anonymous card that includes the word "nigger" to her black teacher Ms. Harris (Tanya Flangin), although that's more out of bitterness than true bigotry. She continually calls Maime "fat," W.E. "retarded" and blind Mr. Randolph "ol' white eyes." All the while, McDonel broadly if genuinely begins to see how each of them needs her. Tragically, the theft of $44 and a campaign of letters to her mother rewards Gilly with--well, let's just say a shocking rendezvous with the limits of family loyalty. Her final call to Maime from the airport is met with the tearful reply, "There's no such thing as a happy ending."

Cheryl Denson's whole final message as Maime felt a bit blunt for kids (Denson was so convincing, it felt a bit harsh for me), to the point where I'm not sure many young people in the audience had had enough life experience to absorb it. Impressive though it sometimes is under director Robyn Flatt, The Great Gilly Hopkins is awfully measured in its melancholy, determined to see our heroine descend from blind pride through clear-eyed sadness into an unloving biological family. The production felt like a march along a graying path--the Saturday matinee audience I sat with couldn't find the right places to laugh, sigh or cry. Their silence was extremely tentative, wanting as they did to react appropriately but not sure where this fractious show would end. That's fitting for DCT's latest serious effort, which might be too "adult" for children and too bleakly true for the adults who pay their admission.

British playwright Shelagh(pronounced "Sheilah")Stephenson had already won awards for her BBC radio plays when she began work on her first script for the theater. The Memory of Water was originally about three sisters at a birthday party stewing over conflicting memories from their shared childhood. Then Stephenson's mother died, and the preparations and inevitable introspection that followed demanded they be incorporated into her play, lest she be unable to continue in that shell-shocked state. Death replaced birth as the catalyst for assessing her characters' lives.

That's just as well. It's safe to say that as family rituals go, birthday parties don't carry quite the potential for soul-searching that funerals do. Party participants tend to look toward the future, if only to lament that there's one year less of it, than recall versions of events they shared. (The exception that proves the rule would be the mid-20th century's most famous stage birthday party, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, in which a loner struggles to make sense of the hazy past he's escaped when two strangers force cake-and-candles festivities on him).

The Memory of Water, currently receiving a local premiere thanks to Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, flirts with a kind of Pinterian comedy of self-delusion. The trio of sisters at its center bicker so over who was abandoned by dear departed mum at the beach and who threw up on the TV set that you wonder if either event ever happened, if one hatched a dream that all of them adopted as dimly remembered reality. I'm stretching the point, not to mention heaping undue praise, to make comparisons between Pinter and Stephenson, a writer of great empathy for people that's leavened by an ear for bitingly absurd dialogue. ("Compose yourself!" the resentfully responsible oldest sister in Water snaps at the flighty youngest, distraught over another failed relationship. "You've got a funeral to attend!") Stephenson is, despite a shelf full of international awards, very young in her dramatist's career. Her expressed and extremely laudable desire to mesh the domestic and the scientific, the personal and the theoretical, has tended to crowd her plays with ideas trying to hook up with each other, as at a matchmaking ball. An Experiment With An Air Pump, her most successful and most historical piece (and this season's intermittently engrossing opener at Dallas Theater Center), nailed the discomfiting value of human life relative to the pursuit of genetic/anatomical knowledge. And yet, its attempts at chamber-room family comedy seemed trivial. Surely, if Stephenson continues to evolve artistically, she'll want to make dinner table arguments between wife and husband seem as cosmically influential as the collision of stars.

The Memory of Water is heavy on the sororal unrest and uses science solely to justify its title, which comes from a broken reverie by Mary while comparing the strange contrasting impressions she and her two sisters have of their recently deceased mother, Vi, with the fluid properties of H2O. Circle Theatre's production, under the direction of actress-choreographer Linda K. Leonard, stars Ellen Locy as Mary, a brain doctor whose professional accomplishments outstrip her sisters' but whose private life is mired in a messy love affair with Mike (Bill Jenkins), a married colleague. Also assembling in the dead mother's seaside home on a snowy night are compulsively organized Teresa (Beth Bontley), the eldest sister who runs a dietary supplement business with her meek husband, Frank (Andy Gwyn); and baby sis Catherine (Nicole Case), a pot-smoking, willow-thin free spirit given to platform shoes, tummy-baring shirts and credit-card debt. The increasingly hostile and frantic interactions among this quartet, fired by cannabis and gin, attempt to unravel the discontents that the three sisters have in their adult love lives from the torn feelings they hold for their mother Vi, who seems to have convinced each that another was her favorite.

Director Leonard elicits a nimble evening of affectionate exasperation from her performers that rolls off our skins as carelessly as the element in its titular metaphor. Indeed, it's a criticism of the appealing actors onstage that we like these people rather more than we should, if the depths of intra-family competition and adult disappointments are to be plumbed for any wisdom. Ellen Locy as stoic, sad Mary comes close to suggesting a real woman facing irreconcilable choices, but Locy the actor is unable to incorporate into her performance the comic extremes of Bontley as anal-retentive Teresa and Case as anal-expulsive Catherine. (Case is the funniest and fussiest one onstage, stalking around in block heels that could give you nosebleed.) As a result, Mary feels set apart from the play and a bit like a mannequin, too, frozen in a pose of indecision while the other two wriggle merrily within their cages. As written, she fairly cowers under the tender but non-tactile attentions of ghostly mother Vi (Kristina Baker, who superbly renders a woman who loves but lacks the traditional maternal demonstrativeness, thus marring her memory as "cold" and "un-nurturing"). She visits Mary only, and coolly but earnestly offers the apologies, inadequate explanations, and justifications that are often the only thing we have left to explain ourselves to family members we've known for a lifetime. Circle Theatre's The Memory of Water gets most of its power from Baker as Vi; the rest of the evening serves up laughs driven by characters, not people.

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