Colman Domingo's 'Wild with Happy' gets dynamic production at Center Stage

Forrest McClendon, left, as Gil and Chivas Michael as Mo in 'Wild with Happy' at Center Stage
(Richard Anderson)

In "Wild with Happy," Colman Domingo's endearing comedy now at Center Stage, cynicism rubs against old-fashioned faith; satire mingles with fantasy; ultra-campy flamboyance snuggles alongside down-home sentiment and wisdom.

The characters run away from, and toward, each other, at an alarming speed, hitting or swerving around issues of life, love and death as they go. It all makes for an unusual, eventful ride.

At the center of things is Gil (Forrest McClendon), a gay, 40-ish, well-educated actor living in New York without much luck at substantial gigs or lasting relationships. While he is "missing in acting," his mother, Adelaide (Stephanie Berry), dies in their hometown of Philadelphia. This haunts Gil in ways he does not anticipate or fully understand.

When he goes home to make arrangements, Gil rebels against expectations and traditions. Cremation will be just fine, he tells the funeral home staffer, Terry (James Ijames), who happens to catch Gil's eye (and vice versa).

Enter Gil's Aunt Glo (Berry), proudly encased in her usual velour sweatsuit, outraged at cremation ("Black people don't do that") and the rejection of a church service and the usual repast. That gets the sparks flying. Enter next Gil's longtime buddy Mo (Chivas Michael), offering moral support and a whole lot of queenly quips. Now we're talking wild with snappy.

To this volatile mix of types and values, Mo adds an impulsive car trip to Disney World, which, against the odds, turns out to be exactly the right course for Gil. Not to mention for Glo and Terry, who chase after the other two — scenic designer Tony Cisek has devised the perfect vehicles — using the "CPPS" system on Glo's phone (no spoiler here on that acronym).

The scenario is a bit nutty, but Domingo makes it work. The play, which moves seamlessly between present and past, develops a natural flow, spiced with sharp humor and, in key spots, given a subtle, affecting warmth. If the characters skirt caricature at times, they manage to stay real and intriguing, thanks to Domingo's vivid dialogue.

At Center Stage, "Wild with Happy" has the benefit of a close-knit cast directed with imagination and sensitivity by Jeremy B. Cohen.

McClendon easily conveys Gil's hates-to-be-touched demeanor, along with the scars beneath the veneer. Whether wrapping himself in a dress of his mother's like a prayer shawl, or momentarily losing his cool at the sight of an urn, the actor strikes just the right note.

Michael gives Mo's every line a delectable spin (you have to love a character who, retelling the Cinderella story, scoffs at a heroine who has "the only foot that fits that glass Jimmy Choo"). The actor might run a hand through his almost Veronica Lake-y coif or bend his wrists too often, but he fashions a winning portrayal just the same. Ijames offers a good deal of charm and spark as Terry.

Domingo gave Adelaide and Glo the best material in the play, and Berry makes the most of that gift, conjuring up two distinct, equally adorable personalities. Her Adelaide is a warm and funny woman with a love for her son that never waivers, even when he bristles, and an unshakable belief that a little magic can enter every life.

Glo, who knows exactly what she wants (including her "onliest" sister's clothes) and would never think of holding her tongue, inspires Berry to even greater heights. Her delivery of Glo's hilarious tirade against "the internets" and people too busy "texting and twitching" to communicate on a personal level is priceless.

Berry and McClendon are especially compelling at the play's cathartic close, so implausibly and deliciously set in a prime piece of Disney World.

This production conjures up a truly magical kingdom for that scene, a place where you can have a small whirl after all, and, with a bit of faith, discover what you need most to move on.

"Wild with Happy" runs through June 29 at Center Stage.

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