Holly is a precocious 15-year-old. She knows the fine points of quantum physics, and she’s in her school’s gifted and talented program. She is also pregnant, and a recent convert to born-again Christianity.
In playwright Kara Lee Corthron’s witty new comedy, Holly Down in Heaven, audiences follow the young expectant mother into the family basement. Stubbornly against abortion on newfound religious grounds, Holly (Maya Jackson) plans to spend nine months in evangelical exile, leaving the logistical concerns of her pregnancy to Jesus. With her doting but easily-swayed father (KenYatta Rogers), a new tutor (Dawn Thomas), and a bumbling ex-boyfriend (Parker Drown) as her only human contacts, Holly turns to her extensive doll collection as confidants.
Corthron sidesteps the potentially polemic nature of her subject matter with deft, original characterization and humor. In Holly’s quirks, audiences find not a teen pregnancy statistic, but a real, feisty character who demands honest appraisal. “I’m God’s favorite,” she proclaims early in the play, and she acts like it. While her dad changes her sheets and her tutor brings her french fries to satisfy cravings, Holly plays video games. But as her due date nears, her sanctimoniousness blurs with the faltering bravado of a scared teen.
This delicate middle ground between blameworthiness and sympathy is the strong point of Corthron’s character writing, and director Michael Dove sensitively blends humor and poignancy. Under Dove’s direction, the show grows organically as it progresses, starting as a witty and irreverent take on a sad subject, and ending on an earned gravity, without losing any of the script’s sparkle.
In Forum’s rendering, audiences see the other characters through Holly’s eyes. Initially, the adults seem flat and flawed, but audiences learn with Holly to appreciate a complexity stemming from misguided love and regret.
In one scene, Holly’s dad, who has raised his daughter alone since his wife’s death, desperately tries to persuade her to get an abortion. Unsure whether to reason with her like an adult, or treat her like his precious baby girl, he offers her a rare and expensive doll in exchange for a visit to the clinic. On the surface, the treatment is light, but Rogers subtly shows the mounting confusion of a father unsure where he went so wrong.
Steven Royal’s set design is effective without ostentation. Hanging beams suggest an unfinished ceiling over the basement, and a long staircase stretching up to a single door is a constantvisual reminder of Holly’s chosen isolation. Shelves upon shelves of dolls ring a small cot, leering over the characters’ complex human problems with porcelain creepiness.
The best jokes come from the dolls, brilliantly animated by Luke Cieslewicz and KyoSin. At the show’s start, Holly explains her system of organization: there are the “ethnics,” the Victorians, the miscellaneous, and—Holly’s admitted favorite—the Asians. When other characters are around, the dolls slump on their shelves. But otherwise, they’re hobbling around the stage (with the help of their puppeteers), arguing with each other, slinging racial slurs, and offering Holly advice. Vanessa Strickland shines as Dr. McNuthin, a foul-mouthed Carol Channing ventriloquist doll with psychiatric leanings.
Holly knows her talking dolls are all in her head, but she needs their counsel. In probably the play’s funniest scene, Holly convenes a mock-U.N. of dolls, complete with a Kofi Annan look-alike and a delegate from Iran. The topic at hand—whether Holly will give up her child for adoption—is far from light, but the forum is irreverently hilarious. Brittany Diliberto’s lights help tremendously in bringing the doll collection to life. A spotlight finds each doll when it speaks, while red lights nod to the unnerving potentials of a basement full of dolls (236 pairs of eyes, at Holly’s last count).
Holly Down in Heaven
Closes October 20, 2012
Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
2 hours with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
In Corthron’s tight script, laughter and pathos shift capriciously. After the dolls start to seem normal, Holly starts talking to God. She’s matter-of-fact with her Lord and Savior, but the tone is familiar: it’s a sad reminder of Holly’s youth that she talks to God in the exact same manner she uses with her dolls. “God, help me be ok,” she prays, in a well-developed reminder that despite her prickliness, she is at heart a 15-year-old girl whose life is changing irrevocably.
At times, the show suffers from an imitation of cinematic technique. Several scenes end sharply on impactful or revelatory lines, but the isolation of the basement leaves the actors with nowhere to exit quickly. The resulting pantomimes of packing and leaving are a haphazard solution, as a sense of sustained development suffers in these overlong intervals. The actors make up for it, however, with continuous energy. Jackson is particularly tenacious as Holly, acting out a taxing emotional arc convincingly with only snatches of break time in the wings.
Overall, the play is a refreshing and original. The dialogue is unapologetically sharp, and the characters come out recognizable and resonant on a very human level. Uncannily, the army of talking puppets only enhances the show’s nuanced humanity.
Holly Down in Heaven, by Kara Lee Corthron, directed by Michael Dove, featuring Luke Cieslewicz, Parker Drown, Maya Jackson, KenYatta Rogers), Vanessa Strickland and Dawn Thomas. Scenic designer: Steven Royal, Costume designer: Denise Umland, Lighting designer, Brittany Diliberto, Resident sound designer Thomas Sowers, Properties designer, Deb Crerie, dramaturg, Laura Esti Miller and stage manager Stephanie Junkin. Produced by Forum Theatre in Partnership with Round House Theatre. Reviewed by Robert Duffley