Like many devotees of Shakespeare & Company, I’ve long been an admirer of Tod Randolph, who over the last thirteen years in the Berkshires has given indelible and exceptionally intelligent performances of such Shakespearean roles as Desdemona and Portia.
Miriam Hyman (Donna) and John Douglas Thompson (Dad) in “The Dreamer Examines his Pillow” at Shakespeare & Company.
The Dreamer Examines his Pillow by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Tod Randolph. Presented by Shakespeare & Company at Lenox, Massachusetts, through September 6.
Randolph has also probed a variety of real-life women characters such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Melanie Klein. “The Dreamer Examines his Pillow,” however, marks her debut as a director. I was curious to see whose work she was drawn to, whom she would cast, and how she would perform in her new role. I came away elated.
Tod Randolph first saw students rehearse a scene from “Dreamer” 23 years ago while training at Juilliard and had a wish to direct it that never left her mind. “How many layers of illusions can collect in the mind?” she asks in her director’s notes. “What does it take for us to wake up? And, by the way, will men and women ever be able to understand each other?”
Such questions permeate the plays of Bronx-born, Irish-American John Patrick Shanley (born 1950) who first garnered national critical attention in 1988 with “Moonstruck,” that satirized romantic love in the Italian-American community. His meditation on clerical sexual abuse — “Doubt” — was a Broadway hit in 2004 and then a Hollywood film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Dreamer” (1986) preceded both. It is his fourth play: young, fresh, angry, funny, bearing what read as autobiographical hallmarks of a playwright baffled by life, family, love and self-knowledge. Although the cadences of Shanley’s expletive-laden, poetic language echo those of his working-class Irish-American milieu, the preoccupations of “Dreamer” are universal and the play translates easily to other ethnic groups. Randolph has cast it black.
The three characters in the three-part “Dreamer” are prototypes in a drama many of us have either experienced or heard about: Donna is an unhappy, enraged young woman in love with Tommy; Tommy is her confused and depressed Ex who thinks he has lost his soul after leaving her and hitting on many other women, including Donna’s younger sister; Dad is a sometime painter and estranged father to both daughters, to whom Donna finally turns for an explanation of sex, love and life.
Shanley’s plot as well as his three characters are inspired creations, each intrinsically interesting and made even more so by interplay with one another. Tommy’s opening soliloquy “My refrigerator — is my soul in you?” struck me as unpromising but with the entrance of an enraged Donna — “Know thyself! And, meanwhile, stop fucking my sister!” — the play takes off and stays aloft until the closing lines.
Randolph’s choice of actors is inspired. Dad is played by the subtle and commanding John Douglas Thompson, who is concurrently playing Othello at Shakespeare & Co Founder’s Theater until Sept 6 after winning an Obie for the role Off Broadway ( he played it first at S & Co last summer). His Dad, handsome and resplendent in a plush red bathrobe is a study in paternal restraint and rueful wisdom when his Donna arrives at his doorstep calling “Daddy! Daddy!” and demanding that he explain her life.
“I hate kids — especially my own,” Dad admits, in his devastatingly understated way. “Other kids turn into adults.” And “When they show up you know they want something and that they’re angry.”
Miriam Hyman (Donna) and Bowman Wright (Tommy) in “The Dreamer Examines his Pillow.”
Miriam Hyman makes a strong Shakespeare & Co. debut as Donna, forceful and convincingly despairing as the young woman struggling to make sense of a mess of emotional conflict about her parents, her lover and herself. Bowman Wright, also in his debut performance in Lenox, manages to give a sympathetic portrayal of the less than sympathetic Tommy, whose allusions to his mother and the “war” serve as excuses for his appalling behavior to women.
Although Donna and Tommy’s relationship is well drawn, it is familiar. The father-daughter duo that stayed in my mind after the play was over, both because of Thompson’s wonderful acting and Shanley’s portrait of an emotionally honest, articulate and ultimately caring father.
Donna wants Dad to answer three questions: How does he see women? What is sex for? and Is what she’s experiencing strictly her own life or is it a re-enactment of family history — and the way Dad treated her mother?
Dad and Donna talk about passion, marriage, men and women in one of the most unusual father-daughter reconciliation scenes I’ve ever seen and come to a highly entertaining plot resolution. Whether it’s satisfying or too pat depends on your degree of cynicism but whatever your take, Tod Randolph’s directorial debut provides a great evening at the theater and I look forward to seeing more of her work as both actor and director.
Note: Helen Epstein has followed Shakespeare & Company since 1981 and has known some of its members for over 25 years. A piece for Boston Review was published as “The Companies She Keeps: Tina Packer Builds a Theater.” She is also the author of “Joe Papp: An American Life.”