Thursday, July 16, 2015

In the Bathroom

I love many things about living in Jackson Ward, not the least of which is its central location.

Because when I don't decide until 7:12 to attend the preview night production of Firehouse Theater's "The Boy in the Bathroom"-  which starts at 7:30 - it's s snap to drive there, buy a ticket and claim my favorite seat (second row, aisle) by 7:25.

The only downside was that I had barely any time to chat up strangers beyond discussing the set. The guy nearest me did tell me, "If my bathroom was as nice as that, I'd never leave it, either." Doubtful, but good for a quick laugh.

Since my decision had been last-minute, I knew nothing of the play. What I'd discovered when I was handed a program was that it was a musical.

What I learned during opening remarks by producing artistic director Joel Bassin, besides that it was volunteer appreciation night so most of tonight's theatergoers were ushers, was that they'd been charmed by the story and that we were the first audience in Richmond to see it.

There's always a certain pleasure in knowing you're the first, right?

Fully half the set was, what else, a bathroom (its most notable feature was the mobile of paper crane origami strung on dental floss from Rite Aid hanging from the ceiling), with a table and chairs and a rack of cleaning supplies making up the rest of the set.

The three actor play - David, the titular character who has lived in the bathroom for a year now, his overbearing and enabling mother Pam and Julie, a young woman who comes to help out when Pam falls on ice and breaks her hip - had been strongly cast with Denver Crawford, Catherine Shaffner and Rebecca Turner giving it their all.

David has chosen to live his life in the bathroom ("It's my abode and my commode") for two reasons: he needs to finish his master's thesis in philosophy and he has Obsessive-Compulsive disorder. He knows this isn't normal, but he also knows it's the only place he feels safe. "It's a great place to think," he tells himself.

You'd think this would worry a parent, but Pam is the great enabler, spending hours at the grocery store shopping for food that can be slid under the bathroom door which David never unlocks. When she's not buying pancakes and tortillas, she's obsessively cleaning her entire house.

Every single day. No neuroses there.

It's not until much further into the play that we learn she has her own demons caused by first her father's abandonment and then her husband's.

In a twisted way, she's happy to have her son entombed in his porcelain womb. At least he can't desert her like the other men in her life had.

Enter Julie, a young woman with a college degree, no car and a burning desire to escape Michigan who needs to earn money, signing on to clean house and help Pam during her recovery.

Intrigued by the idea of a young man choosing to limit his world so sharply, she begins talking to him through the locked door while Pam is at physical therapy. Eventually, they move on to playing games - chess, Go Fish, Life, Monopoly - with each other on either side of the door.

She's the spirit and positive energy of the play, always trying to push David to try something new. She convinces him to unlock the door briefly, but he won't open it. When he says he loves her, she sings "Say It to My Face." She continually works at earning his trust and then asking for more.

Without a doubt, the most powerful number in the production was "Full," a song Pam sings late at night - "I'm full, but I want more" - as she stuffs her face with David's leftover birthday cake and laments how fat she is. The strength and emotion of Shaffner's voice as she shoves cake in her mouth, icing smeared on her face and hands, was gut-wrenching. This was a deeply damaged woman.

Although (or perhaps because of?) Denver Crawford is just entering his third year as a theater major at VCU, his portrayal of David resonated as a young man still feeling his way in the world, trying to figure out if he even has a philosophy of life.

My only complaint was that it seemed like his hair should have been longer or at least not so neatly trimmed, given the year of bathroom living.

Although mental illness could make for heavy subject matter, there were more than enough humorous moments given the abundance of knock knock jokes, usage of toilet paper as props (David is writing his thesis on TP using the toilet as his desk) and bathroom humor (as a child, David awoke from sleepwalking to find he was peeing on his mother who was sitting on the toilet, a story that caused the biggest laughs of the evening).

At just 90 minutes (despite 15 songs) with no intermission, the time passes quickly watching this dysfunctional family and the unexpected interloper who stirs up emotions in both of them.

Who knew I'd luck into a quirky musical with some dynamite performances less than a mile from home tonight? My last minute decision pays off in spades...and toilet paper.

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