BWW Review: DETC's ADOPTION ROULETTE is Drama at Its Finest

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BWW Review: DETC's ADOPTION ROULETTE is Drama at Its Finest

Desert Ensemble Theatre (DETC) has a must-see winner in its world premiere production of ADOPTION ROULETTE, by Elizabeth Fuller and Joel Vig. The play tells the true story of the horrifying experiences that Ms. Fuller and her husband, Reuel Dorman, went through in 2004 in picking their way through the minefield of Russian adoption. Ms. Fuller and Mr. Dorman experienced more than their share of trouble in Russia and found themselves in an Alfred Hitchcock horror tale, which the script aptly describes.

Even before Vladimir Putin froze U.S. adoptions of Russian children in response to the Magnitsky Act (with which Americans have become intimately familiar as a result of reporting on the 2016 Trump Tower meeting), Russian adoption was a fraught subject. Although most Russian adoptions succeed, there have been horror stories that probably resulted from the warehousing of the children in orphanages and the false, rosy stories concocted by unscrupulous overseas agencies. One adoptive mother is serving a 19-year sentence for killing her daughter; the mother flew into a rage over the child's serious behavior problems, none of which she or her husband had any idea when they adopted the child. In 2010, a Tennessee mother put her child on a plane back to Moscow, with a note attached to his clothing saying the child was violent, with psychopathic issues.

Although I don't want to say too much and give away the plot, the play describes some of the horrors, including, among other things, corruption. At the beginning of the play, Elizabeth (Yo Younger) and Reuel (Fergus Loughnane), who have chosen to adopt from Russia because the waiting periods are relatively short, become aware that the system is corrupt - the agencies shake down international adoptive parents for more money than they originally expect to spend and sometimes pull a "bait and switch," promising a particular child, but then substituting an older child, or one with major special needs. Not only that, but Russian law has changed to require two trips before taking the child home - one to meet the child and a second to formally adopt the child in a Russian court. When they arrive in Russia and meet their unhelpful guide, Olenka (Adina Lawson), and their reckless driver, Igor (also Fergus Loughnane), Elizabeth and Reuel start to realize that things may not proceed smoothly, to say the least. Why is the orphanage so quiet? Is it a Potemkin Village designed to reassure adoptive parents? Are the children drugged like zombies? Is the whole thing a scheme to get into the parents' bank accounts and strip them of all they own? (The questions are mine, which occurred to me in response to the deep foreboding the parents experience upon their arrival in Russia). As everything starts spinning out of control, the Russian authorities become involved and appear to know too much about the couple and their plans - and how to push all the right buttons.

BWW Review: DETC's ADOPTION ROULETTE is Drama at Its Finest
Elizabeth (Yo Younger), Olenka (Adina Lawson), and
Igor (Fergus Loughnane) in Igor's rattletrap car.

Although the twists and turns keep the plot engaging, ADOPTION ROULETTE is also a serious character study; Elizabeth and Reuel clash when she wants to consider a special needs child and he objects. Their marriage is obviously strong, but can it survive Elizabeth's desperation when coupled with Reuel's more practical thinking? The play also raises the question of what it takes to create a bond between parent and child, and what might prevent such a bond from forming.

The acting in this production is extraordinary. Yo Younger takes the audience with her on her character's emotional journey, shedding real tears when Elizabeth is in distress, and making the audience feel Elizabeth's happiness and pain. The other two actors, both of whom play multiple characters, are equally adept. In addition to Olenka, Adina Lawson portrays, among others, Elizabeth's cynical Southern friend, an adoptive mother on the plane returning to Russia to pick up her child after a happy experience during the first part of the process, and a Russian judge. Fergus Loughnane's Reuel Dorman comes across as a calm, analytical individual who cares first and foremost about his wife's feelings - the man who women think of as the proverbial "great catch." However, I especially adored his depiction of Igor, the Russian driver who insists that his three passengers all cram into the back seat to leave room for a mysterious metal box in the front passenger seat, and who comes across as both humorous and vaguely sinister. To me, one measure of a fine actor is the ability to play multiple characters who each appear to be different people. Both Ms. Lawson and Mr. Loughnane accomplish this goal.

BWW Review: DETC's ADOPTION ROULETTE is Drama at Its Finest
Reuel (Fergus Loughnane), Elizabeth, and Olenka
experience a light moment.

Shawn Abramowitz, DETC's executive director, directed ADOPTION ROULETTE. He chose to use minimal sets - wooden boxes - and few props, although Ms. Lawson and Mr. Loughnane change hats, wigs, or outer clothing for different characters. There actually are not enough actors to cover all the characters in every scene. Mr. Abramowitz cleverly handles the necessity to double up within a scene: He has the actor who is speaking as one actor turn his or her back to speak a line or two as another character. The minimalist design allows the audience to concentrate on the characters and action, although I would have preferred no props, rather than one or two at the beginning of the play.

Mr. Abramowitz cleverly allows the boxes to be switched around to create new sets while the characters are speaking; this enables the action to move almost continuously. Ashton Bolanos's lighting also contributes to the efficiency of the scene changes as well as to the general atmosphere.

I doubt that Ms. Fuller's and Mr. Vig's fine play will be confined to community theatres. However, I also doubt that professional stages will be able to mount better productions than this one; DETC's ADOPTION ROULETTE is a must-see.

The rest of the crew consists of Cameron Keys (assistant director and assistant stage manager), Frank Cazares (scenic and costume designer), Miguel Romero (set construction), and Sierra Barrick (stage manager). The production interns consist of Ramon Hernandez, Rowan Jordan, Evelyn Lopez, Sandra Miramontes, Maya Orosco, Sebastian Rodriguez, and Janet Sanchez.

ADOPTION ROULETTE will run through February 9th, on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Performances take place at the Pearl McManus Theatre, in the Palm Springs Woman's Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, (two blocks south of Palm Canyon Blvd.), in Palm Springs, California. Contact the theatre by email at, call 760-565-2476 for tickets or more information, or consult the web site,

The rest of DETC's 2019-2020 season consists of:

HOW TO SURVIVE AN APOCALYPSE (Mar. 13-22) by Jordan Fuller, which follows four successful Millennials through a darkly comic test of wilderness survival skills.

MAN & WIFE (Apr 17-26) by Emma Goldman-Sherman, which describes the journey of a couple from ornaments on their own wedding cake, just prior to the 2016 election, through 25 years of bipartisan marriage.

PHOTO CREDIT: Vanessa Michel

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From This Author Audrey Liebross