We’re all thoroughly familiar with the rags-to-riches story. It’s as essential to the vocabulary of plot dynamic as boy-meets-girl. And, just like the latter, it has given birth to corollary constructs: riches-to-rags… rags-to-riches-to-rags… all dealing in one way or another with the ideas of ambition, comeuppance, redemption; their costs, and their rewards.
The story of Lynn Nottage’s 2004 play “Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine” trods a well-worn path. Its title character is a Manhattanite in early middle age, whose academic ambition elevated her from Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman housing project to a Dartmouth education, and whose entrepreneurial spirit further launched her into a lucrative career running a public relations firm. She produces black-tie fundraisers for her friends among the “African American nouveau riche”, runs roughshod over a haggard office assistant, and enjoys the dubious benefits of a green card marriage.
…in Cromwell’s hands, the Strand Theater production navigates this familiar terrain to delightful effect. This production is not to be missed!
Then, of course, trouble starts. Undine’s Argentinian husband, Hervé, has cleaned out her bank accounts and taken it on the lam. He’s left her with nothing of value, and, she’s soon to learn, a highly inconvenient pregnancy. So it’s back to Brooklyn and her nuclear family for Undine Barnes Calles, née Sharona Watkins, where she must own up to having disowned them 14 years earlier – claiming in a published interview that they all had died in a fire. Oops! Once there, she finds her brother and both parents working as security guards while wheelchair-bound Grandma’s heroin habit masquerades as diabetes. On an illegal errand for Grandma, Undine Sharona is arrested for possession and sentenced to compulsory drug counseling. In group sessions, she invents a pill addiction to fit in and meets a man who might be the catalyst of her salvation – if only she accepts him.
At Strand Theater, director Christen Cromwell has embraced all of the predictable tropes that make up this story, building around them a comic filigree of incredibly entertaining tiny moments. Her nimble, sure-footed cast is every bit up to the challenge and the result is dynamite. Dana Woodson is powerful as Undine, capturing and expressing the protagonist’s ever-shifting anxiety, doubt, and even shame – with a rigid backbone that never completely disappears. The rest of the eight-member ensemble are pressed into multi-character duty: Aladrian C. Wetzel, Grant Chism, and Juan Hunter do wonderful work, most notably as Undine’s parents and brother respectively. Wetzel (perhaps best known as an award-winning local playwright) also brings hilarity to polar opposite roles of a snobbish friend and a snarky cellmate.
Nate Krimmel and Leiah Poindexter begin the play as Undine’s hapless minions and produce a very timely impact in other roles later. Albert Omololu Collins displays a larger-than-life physical confidence as Hervé and an honest, immediate warmth as Undine’s eventual suitor. Throughout, his comedic edge is razor-sharp. Another special mention is absolutely due to Kay-Megan Washington. Last seen at Strand in their recent “Little Women” adaptation (our review), Washington here flexes some entirely different sets of muscles. Her performance as Undine’s grandmother is at once funny and heartbreaking, with a matter-of-factness that speaks more to acceptance than to resignation.
Maryland audiences may remember the Mosaic Theater production of “Fabulation” late last summer in Washington. In Baltimore, the play received a noteworthy regional theater run at Center Stage in early 2009. Nottage’s work, in general, is very highly regarded and frequently produced locally, including “Sweat”, “Intimate Apparel”, and “Ruined” among many other titles. As a script, “Fabulation” dispenses its pathos with kid gloves and a heavy lean towards humor, and in Cromwell’s hands, the Strand Theater production navigates this familiar terrain to delightful effect. This production is not to be missed!
Running Time: 114 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Discussion of reproductive rights, simulated drug use, profanity.
“Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine” appears through March 8 at Strand Theater Company, 5426 Harford Road in Baltimore. For tickets call (443) 874-4917 or purchase online.