’Tis the season for theater companies to produce fun holiday-themed stories, and Soul Rep Theatre’s regional premiere of DOT, playing at South Dallas Cultural Center through Dec. 22, is certainly focused on Christmas. But Christmas stories can give audiences cause for trepidation.
After all, holiday stories can tend toward the overly sentimental. It’s the nature of the season: We are all supposed to be full of joy, and any entertainment that bears a fragment of reality’s hardships might tug us right out of the Christmas spirit. The problem is, sentimental movies, songs or even live theater aren't enough to keep us jolly, either. The common struggles of everyday life, exacerbated by the stress of holiday cheer, will probably break down the Christmas spirit regardless of how many mawkish stories we see. If anything, another sappy story about Christmas will make us feel worse about our own imperfect lives. What we need in Yuletide entertainment, then, are stories that resonate with our own struggles while showing us how to find joy in Christmas despite our problems.
Although resplendent in Christmas cheer (a Christmas tree is erected by the second act), DOT does just that.
The play begins two days before Christmas, and the titular character (Catherine Whiteman) is struggling to remember what time it is and even what day it is. Anybody who didn’t read the synopsis in the program (or who didn’t read this review) realizes pretty quickly that something is up with Dottie’s mind. In case the audience hasn’t caught on, Dottie’s daughter and caretaker Shelly (Renee Miche’al) spills the beans to the clueless neighbor: Dottie has Alzheimer’s, and it’s getting worse.
The degree of the disease’s progression becomes more apparent to the audience as the play goes on. Dottie doesn’t only forget what day it is; she also can’t remember that her husband is dead or that her daughter is her daughter. Whiteman plays Dottie with such sweetness and sincerity that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. And because the audience is so quickly endeared to Dottie, we are all the more heartbroken to see her mental capacities crumble. Whiteman’s performance balances the charm and comfort of the ideal grandmother with the tragedy of dementia, convincing the audience of both aspects of her character.
Shelly is the only family member truly aware of her mother’s steep progression, and it’s her wish this holiday season to convince her siblings that their mom is really sick and needs more help than Shelly can offer. As it is, Shelly is cracking under the role of caregiver, frequently yelling at her mother unfairly and day drinking. She represents with honesty and heartbreak the condition primary caregivers often fall into.
Miche’al’s Shelly blends the gravity of her situation with humor in a surprisingly believable way. She often catastrophizes, but she also sheds light on the more poignant aspects of the play. At one point, she remarks to the neighbor, whose mother has died: “You’re lucky your mama’s already gone. Mine’s here and gone all at the same time.”
This is just one of the lines that captures the true difficulty of dementia: It traps its victims between life and death, so that the people surrounding dementia patients don’t know whether to grieve the dead or celebrate the living. Over and over, playwright Colman Domingo deftly expresses this situation, creating a convincing portrayal of dementia that represents all of the problems that come with it.
But although dementia is the weightiest theme of the play, it isn’t the only one. As other characters roll on stage, they bring their issues with them.
Two characters are outside the family, but very close to it: Jackie (Brandy McClendon Kae), Donnie’s high school sweetheart (she’s convinced that she turned him gay), and Fidel (Satchel Victory), an immigrant from Kazakhstan who capably and tenderly cares for Dottie when Shelly is unable to. These characters float around the peripherals of the more interesting family drama, and though they add humor and sometimes real-world significance, they aren’t as fleshed out as the family members, Donnie, Adam and Averie.
Dottie’s son Donnie (Yusef Miller) and his husband Adam (Sergio Antonio Garcia) come into the story in the middle of the night, creating a drama focused on the seemingly trivial problem of their juice fast; but something as insignificant as a juice fast spirals into a reflection on the couple’s failing love life, increasing distance from one another and midlife crises. The fact that they’re a gay couple whose gayness is the least intriguing thing about them makes for a refreshingly realistic spot of LGBT+ representation.
Meanwhile, Dottie’s youngest daughter, Averie (Jaquai Wade Pearson), seems oblivious to the family’s problems, and in denial of her own. She’s a passé YouTube sensation, whose money was sucked away by managers; now she’s living in Shelly’s basement, and she isn’t around enough to realize how sick Dottie is. Pearson walks her character around the stage with all the glamour and insincerity of an influencer, but she subtly weaves enough realism into Averie’s character so that it’s convincing and heartwarming when Averie grows up a little and starts taking care of the family better than anybody else is capable of. She starts out as the most annoying character, but ends as the most lovable.
These characters carry DOT right up until Christmas morning. The family dynamics are heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Although the play mounts to a crescendo that occurs too quickly to be believable, the conclusion of the play remains real and effective. It culminates with a sound reassurance that despite the massive struggles these characters are going through, Christmas is still a time to smile, celebrate and love one another. DOT expresses this touching sentiment without letting its audience forget their sadness.
Although Dottie is neither less loved nor less loving for her dementia, she is still set apart, still “here and gone all at the same time.” DOT wishes its audience a merry Christmas to be sure, but ties the package with a much more realistic and touching bow.
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