One actor plays in the theater are often attempted but few really succeed. The charming, funny, and moving autobiographical play Feeding the Dragon at City Theatre gets everything right. From age 5 to 12, playwright and actress Sharon Washington lived in the custodial apartment inside the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library on 81st Street and Amsterdam in Manhattan. I know Washington from Todd Solondz’s recent film Weiner-Dog, but most will likely know Washington’s role as Molly Mathis in Gotham.
The hour and a half, no intermission play transports the audience back to the early 1970’s. There isn’t much of a central story to be told within the play, which I first saw as perhaps a shortcoming of the work but the more I have thought about it, Feeding the Dragon thrives as a series of vignettes and collection of small moments and funny stories. From time to time, Washington lapses into impressions of the various other family members that lived in the small library apartment including her stern mother, her alcoholic father, her artistic uncle, and her southern aunt.
If Feeding the Dragon has a central storyline, the play is about Washington’s father’s struggles with alcoholism. The play treads this subject lightly: depicting the addiction through the eyes of Washington as a child with feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and confusion about her father. The play leaves the library for several minutes when Washington describes a trip that she took with her father and offers a suggestion about the cause of the father’s addiction. But, the play doesn’t try to give messages or wrap things up even regarding this topic. Feeding the Dragon is much more focused on describing the variety of emotions that Washington experienced as a child inside the library.
The expert dance between plotting both hilarious and tragic moments in the play is done with such alarming audacity that at times I was simply taken aback by Washington’s sheer gifts as an actress and her ability to not only just remember all of the play’s lines but to remember the myriad of inflections and tones used throughout the piece. Although I looked for any sign that Washington was still trying to nail down the elements performance, I could not find any and the actress pounced through the play with hushed confidence.
Because the play does not really have a driving narrative, when the conclusion of Feeding the Dragon does come, it seems a bit sudden. There is no tidy way to end a play, which I am certain could be significantly longer.
Tracy Bridgen, Artistic Director at City Theatre, and Clare Drobot, the director of New Play Development, greenlighted Feeding the Dragon for production and paired Sharon Washington with Maria Mileaf, a director who did a brilliant job on Playwright Horizon’s Lobster Alice and is building a strong reputation for developing new plays. Mlieaf’s direction has no doubt helped accentuate Sharon Washington’s combination of comic timing with heart-breaking vulnerability in addition to creating some particular staging ideas that accentuated certain moments in the play. The intricacies of the stage by set designer Tony Ferrieri combined with Ann G. Wrightson’s bold and transformative lighting also enhance the nostalgia. But the most memorable thing about Feeding the Dragon is that the play manages to create a series of powerful vignettes in a one woman play, something which I have not seen successfully done in a new work for years and never in Pittsburgh.
Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Feeding the Dragon runs through November 20th in City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio. For tickets and more information, click here.