Dallas — Jonathan Norton holds nothing back in his latest script, which is typical for the local playwright currently serving as Dallas Theater Center’s Playwright-in-Residence. Kitchen Dog Theater opened its 29th season with the world premiere of Norton’s a love offering last week, holding to the company’s reputation for producing gripping, challenging theater. It also comes in a big year for the playwright, whose premiere of penny candy at Dallas Theater Center was roundly acclaimed.
Pulling from his own childhood experiences and memories of his mother’s job as an aide in a nursing home, the plot collects from a multitude of dark corners of the human experience—from racism and the systemic obstacles that seem to perpetuate the disparate disenfranchisement of black people, to elder abuse and the horrifying ravages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
That, however, is not the great success of Norton’s script. The play centers on the relationship between T’wana, a young, black, single mother with a sordid past struggling to make ends meet for her family, and her 67-year-old co-worker and “play-mama” Miss Georgia. Both dutiful, hard-working caregivers at the assisted living facility wherein the plot unfolds, we quickly learn the depth to which their bonds of trust and love for each other are tied. Financial hardships, run-ins with authority, and the general tribulations of being black and poor in America serve as expositional markers in the history of their relationship, and here we soon see much of those same testers surface. Except this time, those bonds of love and trust are stretched to their limit after T’wana suffers a bite from her new charge Mr. Turner, and his family thereafter finds that a pricey family heirloom has gone missing from his room.
Themes of loyalty, dignity, responsibility, and self-preservation color the center of this plot, while flanking on either side are the unnervingly subtle (and then suddenly not so subtle) forces of white fragility and white guilt driving the dramatic energy forward, and therein lies the brilliance of Norton’s script. Its honest portrayal of how our perceptions and assumptions of one another can make or break any situation is sobering to say the least. And, peppered with moments of effortless hilarity and sheer, painful awkwardness, the 90-minute play needs no intermission as the pace scarcely lags for even an instant.
Whitney LaTrice Coulter and Rhonda Boutté are endearing complements to each other as T’wana and Miss Georgia respectively. Coulter’s even-keeled warmth and devotion are convincing against Boutté’s more emotional volatility. Likewise, they move in heartbreaking fashion between moments of mother-daughter like familiarity to harsh, pointed resentment with a chemistry that begs for reconciliation. All the while, Boutté’s wildly expressive countenance and roughly cobbled speech serve as a charming through-line between them that reinforces the nature of their intergenerational friendship. Their characters are riddled with archetypal qualities, but in the context and the hands of these actors, T’wana and Miss Georgia cut through with individualistic dynamism.
They are met with equal dramatic force by Josie, Mr. Turner’s nervy, finger-waving daughter, who is played with heft by Brandy McClendon Kae. Hers is a thankless role, and I’m sure the character would agree. Kae is at times painful to listen to (in all the right ways), with a nervous energy that permeates the tone of any conversation she’s in. She does well to embody the angsty fragility of an ill-informed white America, which culminates in a pathetically violent scene. She’s balanced by her more deluded, pandering brother Stewart, who is given an all-too familiar air of condescension by Max Hartman. Hartman’s wide-open approach toward Norton’s character leaves him undefinable in spots, however the precision with which he delivers a manipulative obliviousness almost makes you feel sorry for him.
Not to be overlooked in this cast is Chris Messersmith as Mr. Turner. A nearly catatonic invalid, Messersmith is laid up in his hospital bed before the show begins, hitting the audience from the gate with a startling visual realness that remains on stage for nearly every moment of the play. Save for one explosively arresting moment, he is still and silent throughout the show, characterized by subtle movements and soft groans. He is truly wrenching to watch; a beautifully effective element of the show.
Taking on a juggernaut of social and cultural hot-buttons like this would prove too much a task for many artists, but in director Tina Parker’s hands, a love offering sings with depth and meaning. Parker’s clever use of resources — thoughtful interpretations from her actors and stunningly effective use of space by set designer Clare Floyd DeVries, sound designer Claire Carson, and props designer Cindy Ernst Godinez — comes together to celebrate Norton’s script with an authenticity and attention to detail that is to be admired. The twists and surprises in the plot are fascinating to watch.
Moreover, the uncomfortable truths elicited here are laid bare with sensitivity and marked poignancy, in a manner that is seldom seen. A love offering is a tale of the most crucial kind today — an address to our differences that does not simply insist upon itself, but rather relies on the artistic and social maturity of its audience to handle the weight of its message in productive and meaningful ways.