The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Tod Randolph.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Just saying something’s over don’t make it so."
Bowman Wright and Miriam Hyman; photo: Danny Kurtz
John Patrick Shanley has written a lot of plays, and screenplays it seems, about the Italian-American experience. "Moonstruck" for example, is among his finest creations. Also, "Italian-American Reconciliation" which Barrington Stage Company presented a few years back. Going into the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company for the opening night performance of "The Dreamer Examines His Pillow" I overheard part of a conversation in which the question was asked: "What would a white, Irish writer know about the black experience in love and art?" I thought it an interesting question about a non-Italian who has made such a name for himself creating their particular world so well.
Coming out of the theater at the end of the ninety-one minute one-act play I overheard the same person remark "Well, I guess I was wrong. He knows exactly what black people experience." At home I looked up the play. It has generally been played by an all white cast, mainly Italian, since its premiere in 1985. This may well be the first time it has been played by an all black company and, under Tod Randolph’s directorial guidance, that proves to be the right choice. The obvious answer to both question and comment would seem to be "Shanley, who also wrote "Doubt," knows the human experience and writes it so well that it extends to all people, no matter their race, religion or political choices."
Donna loves Tommy, hates Tommy, regrets Tommy. Tommy loves Donna, loves her sister Mona, finds God, hates himself. Daddy hates everybody, loves everybody, regrets everybody. Each one of them is wide awake and dreaming at the same time. They live in a halfway state, not truly connecting, the way you do sometimes in a dream. Tommy is infatuated with his refrigerator, an inanimate God he has decided to worship when he’s not filling his world with Donna or Mona. Donna rails and raves and rants and ruts. She cannot decide how to treat Tommy because she hasn’t figured out how to treat herself. She goes to Daddy for help. He has no interest in helping his daughter from whom he has been estranged since before his wife, her mother, died. He resists her as best he can, but he is a father and, dreamlike, he goes to her aid, donning a tuxedo and intimidating Tommy. Throw in a happy ending and that’s the play.
Or is it? Is any of this real? Are any of them awake or are they all dreaming some sort of composite dream that affects the lives of all three when they awaken? It is hard to know exactly what is real here and what is imagined by one or more of the threesome. It is this dream quality that makes this a difficult play. It is the intensity of the comedy, the heat of the passions and the depth of imagination that bring the drama out of the strangeness. It turns an ordinary relationship play into a dramedy that leaves you laughing too hard and wanting to sob at the same time.
Miriam Hyman is Donna. The overwrought Donna and the sweetly tender Donna are a fine admixture as she works the constantly altering emotions of this character. Hyman can be sweet one moment and violent the next without transitions and it works like a charm in her delivery. She is adept at the quixotic and that is much needed for Donna to be attractive and loveable. Hyman takes the long journey with quick jumps as her Donna searches for answers and assistance at the same time. She plays the perfect daddy’s girl who prefers her mother. Somehow in the confusions of this role Hyman has located clarity and she presents it in a straightforward way that seems next to impossible to pull off. It’s a fabulous performance.
Bowman Wright plays her lover and tormentor. His Tommy is the exact opposite of Hyman’s Donna. He is never anything less than completely confused by his own life. When asked direct questions, Wright’s Tommy stammers, stutters, glances away like a golf ball hit too far to one side. When he worships it is full out. When he justifies his bizarre behavior it is with an understanding that nobody gets him, so he never tries too hard. Wright plays these moments with a soft-shoe shuffle made even softer in his bare feet. He is an everyman character in this role and he makes the most of it where and whenever he can. This is a character with no disguises. Wright lays him out for all to see, walk on or walk through.
John Douglas Thompson, the company’s Othello, plays a most modern man in this play. He is a character too reticent, too controlled to be anything other than a winner and he manages, by the end of scene three, to emerge just that. His scene with his daughter is heart-wrenching and Thompson proves himself to be the perfect actor for the role. It is this character who is the title possessor, but it is never clear if this experience with Donna is just another dream or is something real.
In fact when all three of them finally appear together in a room, the reality of the situation suddenly takes on the most dreamlike visage of all. On the face of it this is just a dream, but whose dream is unclear. My vote goes to Donna, but I’d second any other nomination as well.
Director Tod Randolph has forged a fascinating world out of Shanley’s vision of the contemporary family dynamic. She has managed, I imagine without making changes to the lines, to create a world that is absolutely right for these three characters. The voyage each one takes to a personal truth is the weirdly universal track she has placed them on. The engine of the play takes them the distance and in her exploration of these relationships she has given her actors a chance, in our sight, to move in too close to one another while remaining aloof, in our ears, even when raging against the heavens that have brought them together.
On the very open stage of the Bernstein Theatre set designer Christian Schmitt and lighting designer Greg Solomon have created a new version of a simplicity that defines complexity. Michael Pfeiffer’s sound design covers some lengthy, if fascinating, set changes and Lena Sands has worked with simple, if sometimes surprising, costumes.
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow delivers a wallop of a message: "You gotta make the big mistakes." At the same time it forces a moral onto itself: "Why Live? ‘Cause it’s not neat."
The journey of a lifetime begins with a single step and this play covers the middle portion with a strange sort of universality. It’s as though everyone I ever knew in the arts was actually black and yet somehow not black.
Maybe I’m the one who’s dreaming. Maybe it’s you.
John Douglas Thompson; photo: Danny Kurtz
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on Kemble Street in Lenox, MA, through September 6, but in repertory. For tickets, or information, call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.