The true art of a two-character play is balance. Theaters used to be a haven for the “two-hander,” where two actors cast a spell over an audience. The Fourposter (which was musicalized as I Do, I Do), Two for the Seesaw, The Gin Game, and Deuce were all enthralling in their time. In the hands of two actors who match each other moment to moment, a two-character drama can delight and captivate.
Playwright E.M. Lewis has taken up the mantle and created a gentle, witty, and moving example of a two-character play, Dorothy’s Dictionary. Washington Stage Guild’s current production of this play is a perfect diversion, cast impeccably.
Stage Guild plays are known to celebrate words and ideas from all periods of world drama. This play is as contemporary as one can get — premiering in June 2022 — and yet the theme of human connection and gentle argument is right in the Guild’s wheelhouse. Founding member Laura Giannarelli has directed this play with grace, allowing the two actors to inhabit their characters in a natural and unadorned manner. For just under 90 minutes, with no intermission, the story unfolds and the characters captivate the intimate Undercroft Theater.
Alexander Kim plays Lysander Hardt, who goes by “Zan.” Zan is 15 and had to choose between juvenile detention or hours of community service for a scuffle at school. Choosing the service hours, Zan is assigned to spend time with Mrs. Dorothy Ross, played by Deidra LaWan Starnes. Fulfilling his community service means Zan must read to Dorothy, her eyesight failing as she languishes in a convalescent home. Upon their first encounter, sparks fly — Zan’s angry, and Dorothy kills with charming directness.
As a former librarian, Dorothy has a room littered with shelves and piles of books, naturally. And, in a moment that is both sad and maddening, Zan has hardly ever picked up a book before he crossed into her room. A hallmark of the play is how Dorothy unlocks the power of books and reading in an angry young man and how their relationship grows as we see Zan expand his horizons.
A play with two actors is all about the relationship, and playwright Lewis has fashioned characters and dialogue that seem as real as can be. Zan’s sarcasm and addiction to his cell phone are recognizable in 99 percent of teens; Dorothy’s unconventional sense of humor and devilish charm are bewitching and we all hope our aging parents or aunties were like her.
Kim, as Zan, has the needed stage presence to address the audience directly and interact with Mrs. Ross from their tense first moments to their poignant final moments together. It should also be noted that Kim is a recent college graduate, so he is a few years past his 15th birthday, but he is completely believable as a troubled teen.
Kim’s scene partner, Starnes, has a blend of lightness and gravitas needed for a middle-aged woman whose independence is quickly fading. As Dorothy becomes more dependent on Zan and his visits, Starnes seems to age and deteriorate before our eyes.
Director Giannarelli is aided in the gentle realism of this play with the atmospheric scenic design by Megan Holden, a peaceful convalescent room, shaded in the lightest blue-gray, complete with hospital-issue bed and recliner chair. Marianne Meadows provides a subtle lighting palette. Throughout the play, sound designer Alli Pearson provides various jazz selections — among Dorothy’s favorite music.
Whereas this 90-minute play does not rise to a gigantic climax, the more gentle and slow build of the parental relationship between Dorothy and Zan is satisfying. And, only in the play’s final moments do we learn about the actual Dorothy’s Dictionary, which will not be spoiled here. Suffice it to say, the denouement is both touching and life-affirming, especially in the hands of two skillful actors. Balance achieved.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Dorothy’s Dictionary plays through October 22, 2023, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing in The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($50–$60, with half off for students and $10 off for seniors) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended (not required). Washington Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.
Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis
Director: Laura Giannarelli
With Deidra LaWan Starnes and Alexander Kim
Scenic designer: Megan Holden; Costume designer: Danielle Scott; Lighting designer: Marianne Meadows. Sound designer: Alli Pearson. Movement/intimacy choreographer: Lorraine Ressegger-Slone; Stage manager: Arthur Nordlie