The Diary of a Dancer may be more aptly titled Diary of someone who aspired…
The production, a one-man show written and performed by Wade Dooley, is about a woman, Mary Shennanbragger, who goes from the small town to the big city but who never makes it as a star. Dooley is fascinating as the older woman, now in a retirement home with a restricted license, who treats us, the audience, like a class of young college students enrolled in an introduction to theater course.
The script is smart – some lines are stunning, others more raunchy – and takes us on a journey through Shennanbragger’s highlights and mishaps. Dooley’s transformation into someone decades older and a different gender is so convincing that I had a hard time believing the guy who came out to say hello after the show was the same as the performer. The brash tone and elderly mannerisms had disappeared into a healthy and gentle person.
As Shennanbragger, Dooley wears a grey skirt, stockings, black socks, Keds, a loud floral blouse, white sweater, glasses, jewelry, and lots of makeup. Costume design is by Abbi Stern. The stage is set with an armchair next to a small bookcase, a vanity, a screen that has some clothes tossed over it, and several framed pictures. It is a room that seems to be confining and full of the past. As Dooley’s script unfolds, it becomes clear that Shennanbragger’s career was more ambition than manifestation. She remembers staring into the vanity’s mirror and in her reflection saw an adoring audience, then adds that she was big in the family room and backyard as well.
As much as her grandfather adored her and supported her visions of stardom, her fame in her small town peaked with being crowned a pageant winner as a high school senior in 1950. She does a song and dance number from this pageant, though her singing is more vigorous than her dancing, as befits an 80 year old. There are lines about “…living theatrically, with your name on a marquee. It’s the only way to be…” (lyrics by Andrew Zachary Cohen and the music by Steven Silverstein).
The sheen on her dream starts to fade when she arrives in New York City and encounters more rejection than spotlight. Stories about an apartment building with floors full of wannabe dancers are funny, although nothing great materializes for Shennanbragger. A call about her grandfather’s failing health brings her home and ultimately she returns to the small town and a quieter, albeit slightly bitter, life. Her last lines about failing to pursue to her goals -– “If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?” – touch on some of the most poignant elements of this story.
On one level it’s a performance about a dancer who tried to make it in Manhattan, on another level it is about the determination needed to follow hopes, and on a deeper level it is about the facades of performers and the way we are all performers when we play the roles we have been given — or wish we were given.
There is a current in Shennanbragger’s life of believing to be better than everyone around her, and then other times when she realizes she is utterly dependent on those same people for shared experiences, fun, conversation. The air is heavy with loneliness in the retirement home, and this contrasts sharply with the excitement and buzz of her years auditioning for Broadway shows. There are beautiful lines that capture the pleasures of the big city – the restaurants’ “pitter patter of small talk and silverware” – and the bleakness of her life today where a Moo Milker that shakes her beverage is her perfect accessory.
Dooley captures the sourness of the character, blends it with a somewhat harsh delivery, but lets an elderly vulnerability and loneliness seep into trembling hands and a quivering voice. He is stellar in this role.
Introducing us as college students sets up a reason for the monologue that follows: as Shennanbragger says “on the first day of class, all professors do is pass out the syllabus and tell their life story.” This telling gets interrupted by Shennanbragger’s dog and then stories that ignite other stories. If the tale rambles at times, this may be an apt structure for someone reliving glory days. The last moments when Shennanbragger appears to be left alone, as if the class has ended and she is reflecting on what transpired, seem a little tacked on. I am curious to see if Dooley develops this material into another production (his biography says he is making a show called Freedom Village: The Retirement Home Musical).
This story connects to anyone who has experienced dashed expectations or years of feeling young that pass too quickly – all those clichés which are also truths. Dooley probably agrees with Shennanbragger when she says “performing is like breathing: if I couldn’t do it I couldn’t live.”
There were only four of us in the audience Sunday evening, but his performance was affecting: a woman sitting close to me had tears in her eyes as it ended. She said it touched her on many levels: not only the sadness of losing a relative and the lack of options for women in the 1950s and 1960s, but also the comedy of the script and Dooley’s remarkable acting.
The Diary of a Dancer
created by Wade Dooley
produced by Jared Neff
directed by Shane Bland
reviewed by Kate Mattingly
running time: one hour
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?