Midway through "Dot," the funny and poignant play by Colman Domingo enjoying a terrific production at Everyman Theatre, a proud woman in her mid-60s is gently led toward a simple admission: "I'm scared," she says.
At that moment, the weight of what this character is going through hits particularly hard. Dotty — a nickname used long before it could turn ironic — is in the early stages of Alzheimer's.
One family member puts it succinctly, if crassly, while unburdening on a longtime friend whose mother died a while back: "You're lucky. Your mother's gone already. Mine is here and gone at the same time."
It takes a sizable talent and a sizable heart to write about all of this without turning mawkish or pedantic. Domingo approaches the subject with keen sensitivity, unforced humor and a knowing nod to our times (race, Facebook, the erosion of print journalism and much more get a mention).
Set in the mostly African-American neighborhood of the playwright's native Philadelphia, "Dot" takes place as Christmas approaches.
The widowed Dotty (Sharon Hope) is being looked after, as much as possible, by her oldest daughter Shelly (Dawn Ursula). There is some help from Fidel (Ryan Carlo Dalusung), a young man from Kazakhstan whom Shelly found on Craigslist. No wonder, as the play opens, Shelly's treating herself to watermelon vodka before 10 in the morning.
She's determined to get her siblings to contribute to the expenses. But brother Donnie (Yaegel T. Welch) makes little as a freelance music critic, and his husband, Adam (Rob Jansen), works for a nonprofit, "which equals no money," Shelly says.
As for her sister, Averie (Paige Hernandez), she's reduced to working as a cashier at a market after a brief flash of fame via YouTube and some low-end commercials.
If getting a financial commitment from Donnie and Averie will be tough, getting them to face what's happening to their mother looks to be even harder. That struggle provides much of the fuel in "Dot."
Into this already tense world pops Jackie (Megan Anderson), a former neighbor who returns for a Christmas visit with a big problem of her own, along with residual baggage from being crazy about Donnie when they were in high school together.
A few scenes may not click tightly or ring true, but everything, including a wonderfully tender dance between Dotty and Adam, contributes to the play's rich emotional payoff. Domingo manages to fit all of the moving parts together into an insightful look at aging, caring, family ties, marital friction, risks, thwarted ambitions, responsibilities.
Each well-defined character fears losing something precious. Each finds a way toward the light or, at the very least, a path toward some form of acceptance, maybe even hope.
Speaking of hope, the production is anchored by Hope's trenchant performance as Dot. Her exquisitely communicative face lets you see the dignity as much as the fear in a woman who doesn't want to be a burden, doesn't want to lose her tether to cherished memories of her husband, her neighborhood, her sense of worth.
Dispensing zingers with extra force, Ursula triumphs as the frustrated Shelly. She makes the character so sympathetic you may even forgive some of the ways she handles her mother (you'll feel guilty, but you'll still laugh at how Shelly brings the Aurora Borealis into that manipulation).
Welch and Jansen spar and soften with equal effectiveness. Anderson does her usual expressive work. Dalusung's accent doesn't sound Russian, but the actor brings a welcome, telling sweetness to the proceedings.
Hernandez makes an electric entrance as the sassy Averie and keeps the snap going irresistibly, right on through a wild discourse covering chitlins, slavery and contemporary diets (Domingo's writing is on fire here).
Vincent M. Lancisi directs the action on James Fouchard's pristine set with keen timing and sensitivity. The result is one of Everyman's most affecting efforts.