Boy, things have certainly changed since the days of “See Spot Run.”
Dick is sick and goes by the grown-up name Richard (Neimah Djourabchi, a textbook 50s Dad with existential longing). His wife (Vanessa Kai, impeccably maternal like a vintage sitcom Mom) has died and children Dick (Jay Cobián, poignant and fierce as a mama’s boy without a mother) and Sally (the sensational Treshelle Edmond) are grieving—Dick Jr. by wearing his dead mother’s clothes and Sally, who is deaf, by struggling with isolation and loneliness. And don’t get me started about Spot (Noah Averbach-Katz, adorably shaggy in a corduroy jacket with furry elbow patches), neglected in the unhappy household and missing his fur mom.
Whatever happened to baby Jane, you might ask? Jane (a strong and proudly disruptive Michelle Beck) fled the lost-in-the-50s suburb long ago for the big city, never to return until Richard asks her to come back.
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally is a far cry from the sunny, simple stories in the beloved children’s books. Noah Diaz’s play explores a family’s particular grief with rueful humor and honesty and also examines how our family stories define and often entrap us.
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Baltimore Center Stage has produced a dandy production of Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, as bright as a picture book but with undercurrents of sadness and chaos running beneath the cool mid-century façade of Richard and Jane’s childhood home where Richard still lives with the children.
Director Taylor Reynolds strikes the right retro vibe, at once comforting and ironic. Scenic designer Stephanie Osin Cohen captures the neat angles of a 1950s rancher and the kitschy promise of futuristic light fixtures and decorations, but everything seems worn and faded, past its prime. Similarly, Alicia J. Austin’s costumes of shirtwaist dresses with crinolines, striped tees and high-waist pants are straight out of the Dick and Jane books, but they look a little off and stiff, like paper doll outfits.
Richard tries to keep the singsong sameness going as if no time has passed and nothing has changed–cookouts at the old Weber grill, lawn picnics and games with the children. But things have happened, a lot of things, as a matter of fact, and it takes a visit from Jane (sporting ear buds and dressed in Old Navy-like togs) to show just how tired this tale has become.
It’s as though Richard is trying to beat back the reality that everyone will leave sooner or later by telling the same story without variation. In doing so, he and the children are trapped between the pages of a book they have outgrown.
Everyone in the house—even Spot—move through their days with clock-like precision, clicking off activities and marching through the motions with consoling regularity. However, there are cracks in the foundation Richard has painstakingly laid. Dick Jr. is clomping around in high heels and pearls and receives surreal, idealized visits from his dead Mother, a dream girl who stepped out of a “Mad Men”-era ad campaign.
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally closes March 1, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Sally, who knows a lot more than what she lets on, chafes under Richard’s rule that she be “normal” and speak. When Jane teaches her sign language, Sally is set free—her fingers glib and flying as she forms the words and phrases that come so hard to her in speech. When Jane and Sally chatter away in ASL it is like a window has been opened in a stifling room.
With rueful humor and a compassion for differences that could light up the world, Diaz’s Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally succeeds on two levels. One, as a study of how a nuclear family handles grief with the specter of more death and uncertainty looming before them. Two, how familiar tales from childhood change as we get older and how we must escape that narrative in order to move on and grow.
The guileless stories from the old Dick and Jane books take on striking permutations in Diaz’s hands. A tale of travel “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is yes, about different modes of transport, but the adult Jane also remembers it as being about death and separation, of waving to a loved one from a safe shore. The play makes you want to re-read all your childhood books to see what else you may have missed or suppressed.
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally by Noah Diaz . Director: Taylor Reynolds. Featuring: Noah Averbach-Katz. Michelle Beck. Jay Cobián. Neimah Djourabchi. Treshelle Edmond. Vanessa Kai. Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen. Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin. Lighting Designer: Reza Behjat. Sound Designer/Composer: Fred Kennedy. Director of Artistic Sign Language: James Caverly. BCS Resident Stage Manager: Danielle Teague-Daniels. Assistant Stage Manager: Tiffany N. Robinson. Co-produced by Baltimore Center Stage and The Playwright’s Realm. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.