“Dot” is the fourth play that has opened recently that includes an elderly character suffering from Alzheimer’s – the others are The Humans, Her Requiem, and Smokefall. But Colman Domingo’s funny and compassionate play at the Vineyard is the only one that puts the character with dementia at its center, detailing the effect of the disease on Dotty and on her family as well. Thanks to this focus, “Dot” is Domingo’s most successful play so far, helped along by some wonderful performances, especially by Marjorie Johnson as Dotty. The play stumbles, however, when it strays from that focus.
Dotty, the widow of a prominent doctor who raised three children, remains a feisty, enlightened, and politically active resident of West Philadelphia. But she has started to become forgetful. She goes to the cupboard to get salt; she comes back with a bag of Oreo cookies. And things are getting worse. Police contacted her eldest daughter Shelly (stand-out Sharon Washington), a lawyer, after Dotty drove 95 miles per hour, and then, taken to the precinct, “she freaked out and cussed everybody out,” as Shelly recalls to a friend. Now, as the family gathers for Christmas, Shelly looks to her brother and sister to help her in placing their mother in an appropriate facility.
Dot is being given a production that’s equal parts humorous and compassionate under the surprising direction of Susan Stroman, best known for helming musical comedies like The Producers and Young Frankenstein. (She was also director of The Scottsboro Boys, which starred Domingo, an actor familiar for his roles in such popular shows as the film Selma and the TV series Fear the Walking Dead.)
Each of the seven characters of the play doesn’t just exist to show how Dotty’s illness is affecting them; they are provided with their own fleshed-out stories.
Dotty’s son Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), a New York-based freelance music critic having financial trouble, is having relationship problems with his husband Adam (Colin Hanlon), an actor. Donnie’s high school sweetheart Jackie (Finnerty Steeves) seems never to have recovered after he told her he was gay. She moved to New York just to get away from her feelings for him, but it didn’t work. Now 40, she’s pregnant, by her married boss. Dotty’s younger daughter Averie (Libya V. Pugh), a flashy dresser who was a YouTube star for the requisite 15 minutes, is also having trouble making ends meet, and is living in her sister’s basement. Even Fidel (Michael Rosen), an immigrant from Kazakhstan, who was hired to help Dottie part-time, gets a last-minute subplot to call his own.
All of this effort to make every character credible and establish their web of relationships is in one way admirable, and their various reconciliations often touching. If it adds up ultimately to a play that feels too long and too diffuse, we are left with the poignant memory of Marjorie Johnson as Dotty, amid the hubbub of her family during their holiday party, quietly and with dignity facing down the future.
By Colman Domingo
Directed by Susan Stroman; sets by Allen Moyer; costumes by Kara Harmon; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Tom Morse; hair and makeup by Dave Bova; Cast: Colin Hanlon (Adam), Marjorie Johnson (Dotty), Stephen Conrad Moore (Donnie), Libya V. Pugh (Averie), Michael Rosen (Fidel), Finnerty Steeves (Jackie) and Sharon Washington (Shelly).
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including an intermission.
“Dot” is scheduled to run through March 20.