Intergenerational stories that spotlight that moment, or moments, when a younger person suddenly “gets” what an older person is going through and vice versa can be difficult to pull off without diverging into clichéd territory. With Washington Stage Guild’s production of E.M. Lewis’ “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” audiences experience an emotionally evocative and fairly tearjerking take that does its best to leave cliché behind as it digs into the inner lives of the two characters at the center of the play.
This play has a cohesive arc, compelling dialogue, and the characters are both very well-drawn and well-acted.
Zan, a typically angsty teenager, has been sentenced to community service—reading to Dorothy who is convalescing in a rehabilitation facility. Audiences do not immediately know the nature of Dorothy’s illness, just that she is a librarian who is a veritable fish out of water when not in her library. Her room has thus become a temporary repository of books. We do know a bit more about Zan on the other hand. His mother has passed. His father is oblivious. His school behavior leaves a lot to be desired and he resents having to read to this woman who insists on politeness and respect. Zan is initially a somewhat unlikable character and it would seem that the play is largely about the transformative effect that this community service assignment has on him.
Inevitably, and predictably, the two bond. Dorothy very much becomes the stand-in for Zan’s deceased mother and largely absent father. For his part, Zan helps Dorothy realize that perhaps there is more to life than libraries, or in this case, her room/library, although, it bears noting that words really are at the center of this piece. Dorothy, per the title, refuses to let go of her dictionary. As Zan occasionally gets stuck on certain words and book passages, she, with rather comic effect, directs him to her very weighty Webster’s. The ending, as expected, is both poignant and inspirational. I will not spoil it here. Needless to say, this friendship that develops, in part over words, is one that breaks generational boundaries in meaningful and theatrically satisfying ways.
This play has a cohesive arc, compelling dialogue, and the characters are both very well-drawn and well-acted. Perhaps the one drawback to “Dorothy’s Dictionary” is that there is a level of predictability in this script that is apt to leave theatre goers with a sense of “having seen it before.” A bit less tidiness and a little more messiness would have served this play well, along with even more of a deep dive into the emotional pasts, as we are so keen on knowing why Zan is the way that he is and why Dorothy closes up tight when it comes to talking about certain parts of her life. Predictability—even when all of the other elements are exceptional—can weaken an otherwise engaging production.
The two actors under Laura Giannarelli’s direction offer meaningful interpretations of what each of the characters must be going through—both in their internal discord and as they navigate this rather new and strange relationship. Deidra LaWan Starnes, as the titular Dorothy, effectively moves between a seeming euphoria as she mentally frolics in her own bookish, Zen-like delight for life and the somberness when the reality of her situation hits and a clarifying darkness descends. She brings audiences into this delight and this darkness with such ease. Her artistry at every turn is applause-worthy. Alexander Kim’s Zan is appropriately “teenaged”—torn between his growing “who cares” bravado in the face of adversity and the fragility of a virtually parentless child who must fight his own battles at too young an age. Kim sustains this emotional tug-of-war quite convincingly.
Giannarelli’s biggest challenge with this play is likely finding a way to balance the “chapters” with the more abrupt scene shifts throughout. “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” like a book, unfolds as chapters and then the subchapters within. At times, the pacing is a bit chaotic. Then again, it seems that those moments are the more emotionally tenuous ones as the characters come to realize they are no longer the only ones in the room—they’ve been joined by another voice. Solitude isn’t inevitable after all.
A clever set design by Megan Holden works well, with the back wall sectioned off into squares that could symbolically be interpreted as book pages in the chronicle these two are creating together. The tech in this production—lighting design by Marianne Meadows and sound by Alli Pearson—come together in a very nuanced and unobtrusive way allowing the actors to do what they do best and shine in the process. Overall, this is an enjoyable evening of theatre that, while not really venturing outside the lines all that much, does reveal some harder life truths in heartfelt and consequential ways.
Running time: One hour and 25 minutes with no intermission.
“Dorothy’s Dictionary” runs through October 22, 2023 at Washington Stage Guild, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC 20001. For more information and purchase tickets, go online.