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You’ll notice the dinosaurs first, of course—the brightly colored carved-wood sauropods that stalk across mantelpieces, tabletops, and workshop shelves. Then you’ll notice the booze.
It lines the pantry shelves, clutters the side table in the living room of the ominously off-kilter house. At least a dozen bottles: Scotch, bourbon, gin, rum, more. You get the feeling there are probably three or four more in the back bedroom, so the woman in the wheelchair—the irascible old woman who’s splashing the bourbon into her English Breakfast—can reach it in the night. The booze is her talisman, a shield against and quickener of both past pain and present anger.
The dinosaurs are her son’s golems, mementos of his dead father, invested with some of the life he has dutifully—but with resentment—put on hold since his father’s passing and his mother’s incapacitation. Inevitably, in the tightly circumscribed world of Regina Porter’s Man, Woman, Dinosaur, one totem turns out to have much to do with the other.
Porter’s sophomore effort is tighter, leaner, and far clearer than her intensely interesting but wildly uneven Tripping Through the Car House, which also had its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth. It’s infinitely better constructed, with neatly tailored scenes and clearly motivated characters.
It’s also surprisingly funny: Widow, son, and the nurse they hire in Act I trade stinging wisecracks and all-too-accurate barbs that punctuate the play like so many firecrackers. And where Thomas W. Jones II couldn’t quite figure out Tripping’s lyrical rhythms, Howard Shalwitz has an unerring feel for the languid reverie and the crisp repartee that together keep this script in balance.
If there’s less of Tripping’s unruly Southern Gothicism here, there’s less of its dreamy, elemental power, too, despite a smattering of voodooish goings-on. Still, there’s a pregnancy in Porter’s writing that echoes that in the earlier play: “There’s nothin’ worse than a new day,” complains one character. “New days are stitched in monotony.” And, describing the vacancy in the face of an abused wife: “She’s immune, perfectly immune. It takes a certain caliber of woman to be so gracefully immune.” Clearly, Man, Woman, Dinosaur concerns itself with some of the same things that troubled the Myerses in Tripping Through the Car House—longing despite limits, frustrated dreams, stifled individuality.
There are just five characters this time, not 10, which makes focus easier: the widow, Verve Willows, who goes by Ma’am (Rebecca Rice); the son, Toochie Willows (Kevin Jiggetts); and the nurse, Bernadette Marsh (Caroline Clay), whose blunt talk and smoldering sensuality spark the upheaval that will irrevocably reorder her employers’ lives. Two others, unwelcome baggage from Bernadette’s past, turn out to be liberating catalysts for Toochie and Ma’am: a grave-digging drunk, Alan Marsh (Vincent Brown), and the child, Li’l Samuel (Daniel Lee Robertson III), he shares with Bernadette.
Old bonds are broken, alliances shift, someone dies and someone kills, and suddenly, possibilities exist where before there were only stifling routine and resentment. True, the too-abrupt conclusion’s too-neat tradeoff of sons and caretakers raises more doubts and questions than answers, and the most probable of those new possibilities is a bad end for all involved—but perhaps that’s what Porter intended.
There are sterling performances here, especially from Jiggetts, who exploits slouched shoulders and the drape of a cardigan to create a picture of a browbeaten man. (Ma’am’s favorite pastime is watching a neighbor beat his wife, but the invisible offstage savagery is just a red herring, a metaphor for the psychic violence Toochie suffers at her hands.) Clay is an uncompromisingly tough Bernadette, pained by the distance she’s put between herself and her preteen son but resolute about not letting him tie her to a worthless, predatory drunk of a husband. If Rice occasionally lets her performance grow one degree too broad, she’s nevertheless got keen comic timing and a way with an acid observation; she makes Ma’am as much a tragic figure as a villain.
The production is easily as accomplished: Lewis Folden’s exhausted, seedy set and Lisa Ogonowski’s smudgy chiaroscuro lighting summon drabness and mystery as needed (though you might wonder why no lightning flashes accompany Mark Anduss’ entirely realistic thunder). If Tripping Through the Car House was a remarkably promising debut, this is a triumphant follow-up. If Porter’s third play is as emphatic an evolution, it’ll be a triumph indeed.CP