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If you’re a regular D.C. theatergoer but aren’t familiar with the actress Maya Jackson, that’s probably because you don’t have kids. Some of Jackson’s highest profile roles have been at Imagination Stage, playing rabbits and such. Now, in her first lead role at Forum Theatre, she’s acting for adults, but playing a kid, and doing a darn good job of it.
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Jackson is the title character in Holly Down in Heaven, a new play by Kara Lee Corthron about an evangelical Christian teenager who gets pregnant and retreats to her father’s basement for nine months. Exile is God’s punishment, she says, and when she decamps, she takes with her a collection of more than 200 dolls, a significant percentage of which are onstage props. Once again, director Michael Dove and his Forum cohorts employ what’s become the troupe’s signature formula: a solid, newish script, a small cast, and a really cool set.
A staircase descends from a door at the very top of the black-box space. That’s the only entrance or exit, and its placement has a voyeuristic effect. On either side of the steps are the shelves of dolls—Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kids, American Girls—whose eyes lock the audience in a staring contest for the duration of the play, providing needed tension to a slow-moving story. But Corthron wants to show her characters evolve over the course of nine months, and that takes time.
Dawn Thomas plays Mia, a grad student hired to tutor Holly in subjects like algebra and African-American studies. It’s worth pointing out that while three of the four characters happen to be black, race is a tangential issue here. There’s a brief mention of how a biracial baby has a better shot at getting adopted, and the African-American dolls crack jokes about hair relaxers.
Oh, right. The dolls talk. Two movies might cross your mind while watching Holly Down in Heaven: Juno, for obvious reasons, and Toy Story 3, the one where the playthings ponder what will happen once Andy heads to college. But if Holly Down in Heaven’s plot feels familiar, its execution does not. Three puppeteers manipulate the dolls, with special praise going to Vanessa Strickland, who voices a Carol Channing-like puppet serving as Holly’s shrink. The exchanges between Holly and her toys are amusing, but the rules governing these animated inanimate objects seem to shift throughout the play, and there’s a shark-jumping scene involving a porcelain geisha who tries to serve tea.
When the show shifts to human interaction, however, Corthron’s dialogue is convincing and well-delivered. KenYatta Rogers, as Holly’s indulgent but lonely widowed father, and Parker Drown, as the condom-challenged boy next door, round out the human cast. For all its fantastical trappings and religious vestments, Holly Down in Heaven turns out to be a show about flesh and blood relationships. By the time the show reaches its drawn-out conclusion, it becomes clear that’s both a blessing and a curse.