BWW Reviews: DANI GIRL Is An Exquisite Mix of Laughter and Tears
The last time I heard a song in a hospital was a little more than eight months ago. They don't play songs in hospitals, just the beeps of monitors and the whirr of diagnostic machines. But, at that particular time in that particular place, there was a little music. Seventh floor ICU in the Gudelsky Wing of the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. About 10 o'clock on a Sunday night in a spacious private room, for a hospital. The only people in that room were me and my grandmother's husband. And, here, my grandmother lying in a hospital bed, comatose and dying.
Visiting hours were ending, and I lived more than an hour away. It was time to leave, and I didn't know if I would ever be in the same room with her again. As she lay on that bed, intubated and surrounded by the machinery and screens that are our new accoutrements of death, I stroked her swollen and freezing arm as I looked down at her emaciated face.
Who knew if, behind that paper-thin skin, there was anything left of the woman who always comforted me when I cried, always laughed like she had been tickled, and prayed more fiercely than I could possibly live? Would there be a way to atone for the ways I had ignored her with excuses in the last years of her life or the ways I had avoided her presence merely for my convenience? Could that wonderful and strong and infinitely forgiving woman hear me despite the broken vessel of her body? I had to hope that all those questions were answered with "Yes." So, in that hope, I sang her songs to say goodbye.
In those songs, I saw her as I never had before. Not an old woman, but a sometimes sweet sometimes flinty girl who could burn as hot as the coal mined near her hometown. I wept for that girl I never knew. I cried ugly. More than I cried the next day when I was told that the sun rose without her. More than I have cried since. That is, until last Saturday, when I saw Dani Girl at Unexpected Stage Company.
I wasn't alone. As far as I could tell, when the house lights went up on this musical about a young girl with leukemia, the whole audience was wiping sweet and sad tears from their eyes. This is a unique effect. It is incredibly hard to find a play that touches large swaths of an audience, especially one that is full of hardened, over-entertained critics. But, just as this play brought me back to that hospital and those songs I sang, Dani Girl is full of moments that tap deeply into human experiences that so many people have been through and that so many people fear. The trick of this play is the orchestral structure that ensures that rich and powerful moments hit at the right time and that the audience is open enough to take in those moments.
Lots of playwrights write "sickness plays:" plays that examine the social and personal effects of a disease, whether it's cancer or AIDS or addiction or whatever. They are performed and workshopped so often that they are practically their own genre. A vast majority of these plays aren't successful, not because they aren't heart-rending, but because they pile the heart-rending on, often with a strong dose of rage at God/the world/the medical system/whatever the playwright wants to blame. Oftentimes those plays are simply unwatchable because the audience wants to walk out of the theater and into traffic, either from depression when getting too invested in a complete downer of a play or from boredom when they forcibly divest themselves from the horrors happening onstage. In Dani Girl, Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond create many peaks of humor to contrast with the valleys of pain. This variety keeps the audience on its roller coaster ride, instead of making them want to jump off.
The key to the variety that Kooman and Dimond use is the imagination of the young protagonist. Even though Dani is a victim of cancer, she is still a child, and she uses her child's imagination not just to escape her disease, but to help conquer it and deal with the pain it causes. The inciting incident of the play is a perfect example of the multifunctionality of the playwriting. Dani is back in the hospital (after a remission of her cancer) and has discovered that her disease has returned. The chemotherapy has taken her hair. She asks Raph, her mostly imagined guardian angel who accompanies her when the cancer takes hold, whether or not she can get her hair back. Raph surprisingly says that she can and transforms into a game show host (with the song "Trivial Pursuit of Death") who guarantees that, if she can answer all of his questions correctly, she can indeed get her hair back. All but one of the answers are easy for Dani, the questions lead to the answer "Cancer." The last question is one that every child with leukemia must ask at one time or another: "Why is cancer?" The innocence and sorrow of that question wrapped in imaginative and comedic context is the driving factor in Dani's journey throughout the play, and that mode typifies the brilliant song- and word-craft of Kooman and Dimond. This is a show whose main character is a child and is (excepting a little drug content) appropriate for most ages, but they don't simplify the emotions of the characters. They recognize that even if children have a difficult time expressing emotions with the subtlety of adults, their feelings are no less valid and no less complex.
The complexity of emotion inherent in the script demands that the children in this play be played by adults. Caroline Wolfson plays Dani with detail and respect, never forgetting the character's age but also never denigrating the character for it. Zach Brewster-Geisz plays Dani's roommate, a boy named Marty with Hodgkin's lymphoma (which Dani terms "sissy cancer"). His actual age was a bit of a shock at first, but he plays Marty with an openness and vitality that makes his age melt away.
Each of these actors has a tough job. They have to be subtle enough to emote the complexities in the script, but big enough (an acting teacher might call it "indicative") to keep their characters as children. But these two actors are up for it. The score and singing parts throw some of the actors off, mostly because Kooman's music contains the capacity for some elegant and difficult pop stylings, but director Christopher Goodrich has taken a smart "acting-first" approach to this musical. He has ensured that the essential meaning and emotions of the songs get conveyed even if some of the finesse isn't there. Goodrich has also directed these two actors in particular with devotion to detail work: from Marty's imitations of the movies he loves so much to Dani's precise understanding of her own fantasies. But these adults playing children aren't the only actors in the production.
In the libretto and score, the two "adult" characters don't have it easy. Joshua Simon (playing Raph and a few other characters that I won't spoil for you) has a herculean task of balancing very different and often campy characters, singing the hardest parts in the play, and carrying the vast majority of the choreography of the play. He holds up well under the strain. Even though some of his choices aren't exceptionally radical, that turns out to be a great decision when he wipes away all of the camp for his last transformation. He becomes the most simple and beautiful expression of who he is supposed to be, even through the effort of huge changes over the course of the evening.
His counterpart, Maggie Robertson playing Dani's mother, has the opposite difficulty. Her time onstage is the most limited, and she has to play the straight adult for the majority of that time. Her motherly words throughout the play contain hints of her pain. She doesn't get to be funny or open the audience up to her character through likability. She has one song. That's it. One song to express the pain of being a single mother of faith with a child who has gone out of remission and back into cancer. But, oh my, does she nail that one song. She has the one truly heart-breaking moment in the play, unmixed with sweetness or innocence. And when she breaks, you will break with her.
This is a good place for my warning about this play. If you invest yourself even a little bit into Dani Girl, it will leave you exhausted. You will grin until your cheeks hurt. Your throat will tighten when you choke back tears. You will most likely audibly say, "Awwww." You may want to drive home in silence just to recover from the hilarity and the hardship, from the overall intensity of this play, the moments in it, and the moments that it recalls in your memory.
Which brings me back to where I was before, sobbing while walking out of a Baltimore hospital, a little broken because I had said goodbye but a little joyful that my grandmother's pain was soon to end. I thought then that only another death or a birth could bring me to that emotional place again. But Dani Girl brought me directly to that moment of vulnerability with exceptional prowess from the playwright, composer, and production.
Was the production perfect in every respect? Of course not, but I'm not sure that perfection is what I look for in theater. I look to be transported. I look for earnestness and good storytelling. I look for the theater magic that only happens in human bodies. I look for magic that displaces the fact of the physical world with the truth happening between actors and audience. I look for a story that can touch me and tell me that I'm alive. What do I say if I'm judging on that criteria? Dani Girl is easily the best play I've seen all year.
Dani Girl is playing at the Randolph Road Theater (4010 Randolph Road) in Silver Spring, Maryland. You can get tickets at http://unexpecteddanigirl.brownpapertickets.com/
Photo by Kate Erin Gibson