Goofiness is not a term normally associated with grief, but in Colman Domingo’s sparkly play Wild with Happy, the mourning process becomes a madcap romp, a Disney-fied fantasy that is both silly and sweet.
Rarely can a playwright and a production pull off reducing the audience to helpless, wipe-up-the-aisles laughter in a setting that includes coffins, cremation and newly deceased parents. Domingo and director Jeremy B. Cohen achieve this and more with a show that actually makes you feel like its title.
Gil (a commanding Forrest McClendon) is a New York gay preppy fashionista who just can’t cut a break. His lover broke up with him, his acting career is going nowhere—he can’t even get cast as a craisin, for the love of God!—and his “only-est mother in the whole world” Adelaide (Stephanie Berry) has just died.
Riddled with guilt over being largely AWOL in her life over the last year, Gil zips down to his hometown of Philadelphia to wrap up Adelaide’s passing in warp speed time. Crisp and imperative, Gil fairly barks –”One name. Gil. Like Cher.”—at Terry (James Ijames), a neophyte funeral director who suspects his true calling may lie in New Age alternative healing. Eyeing up Gil appreciatively, Terry presents with Vanna White flourish a coffin that is “classic, like a Chanel suit.” “What about Liz Claiborne?” Gil snaps, taking in the couture price tag.
Gil wants cremation, end of story. His efficiency keeps getting interrupted, however, by hemmed-in emotions freed by remembered phone calls from the vivid Adelaide, who had a heart as cheerful as birdsong and an outlook that relied on belief in dreams and fairytale endings.
Her son appears to be made of gruffer stuff. Yet for all his chic cynicism and attitude, Gil still very much remains the 10-year-old boy who adored and protected his glamorous mother. “You look like Lola Falana,” young Gil says to Adelaide as she prepares for a rare appearance in church. “So do you,” Mama replies, with pride.
Any equanimity Gil hangs onto is obliterated when he goes home to sort out Adelaide’s things and is blindsided by her sister Aunt Glo (Stephanie Berry again), a tsunami in a velour track suit who climbs up the fire escape into Adelaide’s bedroom. She has a thing or two—or 10,000—to say to Gil about the way he’s handling arrangements.
“Our people don’t burn bodies,” she begins, in an uproarious soliloquy on African American funeral rites, which rolls up everything from Kool-Aid and red meat to hats, fainting spells and baked goods. And did I mention the entire time Aunt Glo reams out her nephew for his crass behavior she is scouring through Adelaide’s closet and piling on her clothes and accessories?
“Heel’s a little high for me but Adelaide would want me to have these,” she says, plopping a pair of shoes into an enormous tote bag brought along for the occasion.
But Aunt Glo is just getting warmed up. Berry’s tour de force performance as Aunt Glo shoots the show into a stratosphere of comic outrage as Aunt Glo expresses her views on “the gays,” all you can eat buffets, and most memorably, the death of communication in modern society, which she blames on “the internets.”
You don’t think anyone could hold a candle to Aunt Glo’s incandescent looniness but she has a contender in the exhibitionist department when Gil’s friend Mo (Chivas Michael, a visual and aural kaleidoscope in the role) arrives for support. Mo’s fan-waving, head-snapping, work-it-girl moves make Ru Paul look like a wallflower.
WILD WITH HAPPY
Closes June 29, 2014
700 North Calvert Street
1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $19 – $59
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Mo believes what wounded Gil needs is a road trip to where he and Adelaide were last together and happy, which coincidentally is touted as “the happiest place on earth.” With Aunt Glo and Terry the funeral director hot on their wheels, all four set out on this loco trip to bountiful.
It is in the final scenes at their destination that scenic designer Tony Cisek works his patent magic, recreating a Cinderella Suite that is on one level hokey and cheesy but on a deeper level, completely captivating. You are completely sucked in by the manufactured magic.
And it is also in this setting where the play takes a leap of faith into the realm of hope and wishes that really do come true. We realize that Wild with Happy is more than a pyrotechnical display of campy humor and its accompanying cathartic laughter. It’s an old-fashioned expression of one grown-up boy’s love for his mother that asks for only one thing—to believe. And that’s truly the stuff of fairy tales.
Wild with Happy by Colman Domingo . Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen . Featuring Forrest McClendon, James Ijames, Chivas Michael and Stephanie Berry . Scenic design: Tony Cisek . Costume design: Alejo Vietti . Lighting design: Robert Wierzel . Sound design: Robert Kaplowitz . Dramaturg: Catherine Maria Rodriguez . Casting director: Pat McCorkle . Stage Manager: Laura Smith assisted by Caitlin Powers and Brooke Redler . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.