Theater may be a collaborative process, but artistic director Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre production of the comedy-drama “Dot” is singularly elevated by the magnificent performance of lead actress Denise Burse as the title character.
Dotty Shealy has lived in her West Philly home for upward of 60 years, where she and her husband (now deceased) raised three children. Each of the kids has long since flown the coop, living their own lives and dealing with their own personal issues. As another Christmas quickly approaches, however, the fractured family unit is forced to come together and confront the painful reality that Dot is waging a losing battle with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Such a diagnosis is undeniably devastating, and yet, within the context of a play like Colman Domingo’s “Dot,” it can provide a tremendously satisfying opportunity for an actress to sink her teeth into an uncommonly juicy and meaty role. Burse is most assuredly up to the complex task. The Atlanta native, who has been based in New York for some time now, is no stranger to the True Colors stage (from “Fences” to “The Amen Corner”), although she is probably most widely familiar for her recurring part on the Tyler Perry sitcom “House of Payne.”
Burse runs the gamut with fierce conviction and sublime nuance in equal measure, from capturing the comedic highs of the script to conveying the dramatic lows of its situation. At various points in between, she transitions from sharp, wisecracking lucidity to stark, heart-rending disorientation, occasionally in midsentence. It’s a master class in dynamic acting, informed and instructed by a profoundly authoritative talent.
Not that some in the supporting cast around her aren’t clearly capable, too, but — without exception — they are essentially saddled playing clichéd stereotypes. Tinashe Kajese-Bolden stands her ground quite admirably as the eldest daughter, Shelly, a take-charge lawyer and single mother who’s increasingly frustrated and stressed out by the day-to-day demands of looking after Dot. So does Amber A. Harris as Averie, the youngest, a loud and unruly would-be actress preoccupied with a dubious showbiz career.
Gilbert Glenn Brown is the middle son, Donnie, a floundering freelance musicologist, who is described as being “as gay as gift wrap” at one moment, and “too conservative” the next. As Dot eventually puts it, “If you’re going to be gay, be gay.” It’s hard to tell, given Brown’s lack of romantic chemistry with Lee Osorio, portraying his New Age-y husband, Adam, a health nut who has the two of them on a “juice cleanse” and a new vegan diet.
Also on hand: Rhyn McLemore Saver is Jackie, the family’s longtime Jewish neighbor, recently returned from a failed affair with a married man, and pregnant on top of that; and Benedetto Robinson appears as the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Fidel, Dot’s undocumented Kazakhstani caregiver.
(By their customarily impeccable standards, the scenic design of sisters Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay seems underwhelmingly ordinary, at least at first. Back at the helm of a True Colors show for the first time in several years, the Tony-winning Leon shrewdly waits for audience members to resume their seats after intermission before rotating the kitchen set to reveal a spacious, well-appointed living room on the other side — to a much-deserved round of applause.)
Life can be messy, as the extended Shealy family already knows, even as things inevitably deteriorate further for Dot. The way in which Domingo ties up all of the play’s secondary subplots so neatly and tidily belies that fact. But in her valiant performance, Burse speaks a certain human truth to a considerably higher power.
Through Aug. 12. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays (excluding July 27); 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (excluding July 28); 7 p.m. Sunday (July 29 only); 11 a.m. Wednesdays (Aug. 1 and 8 only). $23-$44. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849, truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: See it for Denise Burse’s bravura performance.