Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Feeding the Dragon" - A Modern Day Fairy Tale

Sharon Washington on the set Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover
One character plays are not the rarity one might think. One character plays both written about and performed by the actor - now that’s another issue.

The impetus for "Feeding the Dragon," now getting it world premier at Pittsburgh City Theatre, was an article in the "About New York" section of the New York Times of a family that lived on the upper floor of the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan.

There, the family patriarch served as the library custodian and, as part of his payment, received free rent for him and his family - a wife, daughter, the daughter’s grandmother and dog named Brownie. The Times article drew such interest that the daughter’s inbox was full of messages the following day from prospective writers wanting to pen the story of her unusual childhood experience.

Veteran actress of twenty-five years and winner of numerous acting awards, Sharon Washington decided to write her story herself, first as a children’s book that kept evolving as a memoir of her childhood. Eventually, she told her story in the form of a play she describes as a modern-day fairy tale, one that very well could be titled "The Little Girl Who Lived in the Library."

Living with immediate access to a large depository of books was Kismet for young Washington. She had a love of books and read them voraciously, preferring reading over other pastimes. Her knowledge of things literary helped get her a partial scholarship to the Dalton School attended by the well-heeled on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And being familiar with the works of a slew of authors also probably came as a boon when she decided to write her first play.

Looking like a svelte Toni Braxton with the energy of Chelsea Handler, she ambles all over the stage of the intimate Lester Hamburg Studio telling her anecdotes of her childhood family, friends and neighborhood like someone talking to a long -lost acquaintance with some catching up to do.

Lynx-like, she moves from a seat on a stool at the front of the stage and glides up three rows of stacked bookshelves that really serve as steps to a chair behind a table recalling the day her dog got out of the apartment and how the entire family frantically looked for the animal in the recesses of the library. Later, crouching down, she mimics Brownie’s reaction to some peanut butter the dog managed to eat, much to the delight of the audience.

Other tales follow like a string of lights on a Christmas tree, some humorous, others a bit more contemplative and sober. We learn of her grandmother, an elderly lady able to venture out of the apartment only on Sunday, when Pentecostal services are a day-long affair. Of her mother, who buys her clothes at thrift stores and wonders if any of the high society ladies she encounters at Dalton PTA meetings might remember her dress as something they once donated to charity.

We hear about her neighbors, like the chatty Mr. Sam who owns a neighborhood used furniture store and is eager for a sale, and or the bartender at a local tavern who serves her her first Shirley Temple during an outing with her Dad.

On a somber note, she takes us to the library basement with her father where he  stokes the furnace with coal, feeding the dragon as she likes to put it, only to wonder and worry what would happen to her and her family if he was no longer able to perform his job. About mid way through the play, she introduces another dark cloud that shadowed part of her childhood, an element the entire family had to live, a sword of Damocles dangling over their collective heads.

Amazingly, she wondrously captures the accents of the characters she introduces - five at my last count, be it the Southern drawl of her South Carolina relatives or Mr. Sam’s Yiddish-influenced language.

Abetting her polished performance is some fine work by director Maria Mileaf and the technical crew. The most poignant element Tony Ferieri’s somewhat spare set is the wall if glass-like  blocks set against the back of the stage that change color - blue, purple, white or multicolored, to reflect Washington’s change of mood or tone. Light designer, Ann G. Wrightson, perfectly synchronizes the color of the wall to match the script’s oft-changing frame of mind.

Just as striking is the music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, who not only underscores the action with appropriate music by adding some right-on sound effects that add depth to Washington’s autobiographical play.

As we approached the end of the play’s 80-minute duration (as mentioned in the program), I began to wonder how Washington would end her story. It seems she saved the best for last - a poetic summation with an emotional clout that brought a lump to my throat, a tear to my eye and a rousing standing ovation from an appreciative opening night audience.

Sharon Washington Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

Sunday Talkback –Nov. 6
Conversation with the artists immediately following the 2:00 p.m. performances, moderated by City Theatre Artistic Staff.

Greenroom Young Professionals Night – Friday, Nov. 4 at 8:00 p.m.
$25 Greenroom ticket includes complimentary snacks, beer, and wine after the performance, and mingling with the cast. Use code GREENROOM when ordering.

Pay-What-You-Want – Saturday, Nov. 5 at 1:00 p.m.; Friday, Nov. 18 at 8:00 p.m. A limited number of tickets are reserved for PWYW and go on sale two hours before curtain, walk up sales only. Call the box office in advance to check on availability.

ASL Interpretation Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7:00 p.m.
Open Captioning and Audio Description Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2:00 p.m.

City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 (South Side)
Patron parking is available in the lot across from the City Theatre entrance for $8.
412.431.CITY (2489) or

Single tickets start at $37.50.
Season subscriptions are still available and three-show packages start at $99.

Audiences under 30 may reserve $15 tickets in advance for all performances except Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays at 5:30 p.m.; on Fridays and Saturdays, rush tickets are available two hours prior to show time and based on availability. Seniors age 62 and older may purchase $22 rush tickets at the Box Office beginning two hours before show time, based on availability. Groups of 10 or more are eligible for discounts – contact Joel Ambrose at 412.431.4400 x286.

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