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Feb. 23, 2015

‘Slowgirl’ at the Dobama

By Elisabeth Weems

Northeast Ohioans transcend the frigid winter and enter the tropical jungle. Huddled into an intimate basement theater, spectators witness the developing family relationship of practical strangers. This heartwarming experience invites patrons to accompany the characters on a temporary escape from an unsatisfactory reality.

“Slowgirl,” a contemporary play, was created by playwright and fiction author Greg Pierce, who also wrote “The Quarry” and “Later that Night.” This comedic drama opened Jan. 23 at the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights and was featured until Feb. 15. The small-scale, 95-minute performance consists of two characters, four scenes and no intermission. The story unfolds over six days in the South American dry forest.

Becky, a superficial, popular 17-year-old, spends a week at her reclusive uncle’s shack in the Costa Rican jungle. Sterling, her uncle, typically spends his time reading, walking and building trails. He does not frequently interact with humans in the uninhabited wilderness.

He is taken aback by Becky’s adolescence and lack of inhibition. In no time, the fast-talking, foul-mouthed teen reveals details of the tragic high school party that preceded her jungle retreat. They hike up to the hilltop Labyrinth, a nature retreat built by Sterling, which he frequently visits for meditation. On her final day, Becky hysterically breaks down with secrets and self-realizations. After spending nine years apart, the niece and uncle find companionship and healing in each other.

The mission of the Dobama Theater, an Equity house, is to “premiere the best contemporary plays... while provoking an examination of our contemporary world.” One can expect high quality, modern productions at this the theater, which has received positive, national reviews. Artistic Director Nathan Motta chose this heartwarming, realistic play to offset the Cleveland winter blues.

Sterling is depicted by understudy John Busser, a local Cleveland writer and actor. Sterling moved to the jungle to evade modern American society, his ex-wife Karen and a scandal with his former business partner. Busser wonderfully portrays the insecurity that clouds Sterling’s ability to express himself to others. Although his young niece forces him into disequilibrium, her short visit becomes beneficial for both of them.

The female lead played in this performance is understudy Katie Wilkinson, a senior at Shaker Heights High School and a convincing counterpart to Becky. Wilkinson is an emerging actress with impressive talent and natural stage presence. Becky’s diction, attire and priorities reflect modern teenage social norms. She exemplifies the youth that create a judgmental, conformist high school environment.

According to Motta, the overarching motif of the production is intended to be bullying. However, this was overshadowed by themes of family relationships, strained communication and the ways people cope with problems.

Before the show begins, the unconcealed set is immersed with the sounds of squawking tropical birds and chirping crickets. Most of the story takes place in Sterling’s wooden, tin-roof hut. The bungalow is brought to life by Scenic Designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski. His shanty symbolizes a sense of uncertain permanence. At one point, Becky asks her uncle if he thinks he will die in this shack.

The Labyrinth encircles the dwelling, composed of a dirt path, pebbles, tree stumps and wooden crosses. Sterling invites Becky to join him in his mind-cleansing, silent reflection. At first, she mocks his meditation, but soon finds herself becoming more self-aware and mature.

Director Leighann Delorenzo captures the complex relationship between a minimalistic, introvert uncle and his crude, extrovert niece. Their wounded souls experience slow connection as they confront their shattered pasts and uncertain futures. When Becky’s sheltered world that revolved around popularity with her peers topples, Sterling helps to pick up the pieces.

The final act prompted a standing ovation from the diverse audience. The slow-moving plot allows for a profound connection with the relatable characters. Theatergoers are uplifted by the happy ending, and the acting and production are of high quality. This performance accurately emulates the ability of humans to avoid confronting their own issues while healing those of others.