BWW Reviews: WILD WITH HAPPY Will Make You, Well, Wild With Happy
"Sprinkle ourselves with fairy dust." That's the prescription the flamboyantly gay Mo (Chivas Michael) has for the broken heart of his good friend, the less flamboyant Gil (Forrest McClendon), as Gil tries to put his life back together after the death of his mother Adelaide (Stephanie Berry), in Colman Domingo's Wild With Happy, now at Center Stage. Gil's been going downhill from even before her passing, with his acting career doing nothing much, his love life on hold, and his brooding self-absorption blinding him to his mother's terminal state even as she's been reaching out for him. But Adelaide's death completes the decline and fall.
Partly it's because the people who claim to be helping him with this transition don't help much, at least at first. There's his Aunt Glo (Stephanie Berry again), who alternates between looting her dead sister's wardrobe and berating Gil because he doesn't want to do the conventional black funeral (and after a phantasmagoric brief church scene from Gil's childhood in which a harpyish church lady keeps singling him out for his "limp wrist," one can well understand his reluctance). There's neophyte funeral director Terry (James Ijames) who tries to sell Gil coffins he can't afford, and then confuses him (albeit gratifies him too) by having sex with him.
Eventually Gil wins the struggle for the right to define his mother's obsequies. He is handed the urn with her ashes. He has sole custody. But then what?
The second half of the play answers that question. It turns out that while Gil doesn't have the answer, Mo does. It involves a car chase down I-95 and the Cinderella Castle Suite at Disneyland, and a vision of Adelaide dancing in a magical white dress, and fireworks.
In short, when all else fails, use fairy dust. Magic may make meaningful that which nothing else can: that is Domingo's message. It's a message that certainly chimed with the audience the night I saw it. It's been a good while since I've seen a crowd at a non-musical having quite so uproarious a time. In fact, the one thing about the show that needs improvement is that the actors have to learn better how to avoid speaking lines which will only become unintelligible during the laughs.
I've read about an earlier production that was not so well received, and I suspect that, as sound as this play clearly is, it benefits mightily from the Center Stage treatment of which I've written before, which I can simply sum up as first-rate everything. The cast is outstanding, especially Chivas Michael, all hair-tossing and bracelets and spangled jeans, who renders entirely believable his character's inspiration for getting Gil's groove back. And one must also cheer Stephanie Berry, who somehow managed, throughout most of the play, to keep me from realizing she was playing both Adelaide and Aunt Glo (sometimes the reviewer doesn't get to read the program until after the show, all right?). These two women are so different, and yet so fully realized. Jeremy Cohen's direction made everything count, and kept the pacing perfect.
It is also time to mention that Kwame Kwei-Armah, in his third season as Center Stage's artistic director, has infused Center Stage's long-standing polish with a vital and often mischievous new spirit that carries on from production to production. Audiences are responding to this new spirit; one can feel it.
It is interesting, in light of this, that the organization has to put on two plays in one season with an avowedly autobiographical black and gay focus; the other was the season-opener, Marcus Gardley's dance of the holy ghosts. There is a notable resonance between the two plays. Both plays are, moreover, about two things: the playwright's efforts to come to terms with two difficult older members of his family, and the playwright's own development as a black gay artist. In dance, as I commented at the time, those two subjects related only indifferently well, seeming at times as if they were components of two different plays; in Wild With Happy it's a total fit. Partly that's because for Domingo's hero, the sexuality is not so much an issue as a circumstance. Out to his mother and his aunt and perfectly well accepted by both, Gil is therefore missing one obstacle that Marcus, Gardley's alter ego, faces in trying to bridge the gap with his grandfather. Nothing quite resolves that problem for Marcus. The solution for Gil in dealing with both dead mother and annoying living aunt is a retreat into a kind of fabulousness likely to resonate particularly with certain gay men, but it works believably in dramatic terms, and is something all audiences can relate to.
Last season, Center Stage of course put on two plays that took off from Raisin in the Sun, and clearly set out to provoke comparisons. This may have been a more subtle invitation, but I'm pretty sure it was deliberate too.
That said, no one needs to be at all analytical to have a wonderful time at this show.
Wild With Happy, by Coleman Domingo, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, through June 29, 2014, at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202, www.centerstage.org, 410-986-4000. Tickets $10-$59. Occasional adult language, sexual situations.