Saint Simeon spent years living atop a pillar, the story goes. Saint Anthony of Egypt withdrew to the desert. Could they have chosen those routes to holiness because they lived prior to the Barbie franchise’s Dolls of the World collection?
The protagonist of “Holly Down in Heaven,” Kara Lee Corthron’s bold, funny new play, might say so. A 15-year-old born-again Christian with a sky-high IQ, Holly learns that she is pregnant, so she exiles herself to the basement that contains her treasured 236 dolls, including samples of the aforementioned Mattel line. Because she keeps the toys in pristine condition, they are, in a way, the emblems of a virtuous asceticism.
And as played by Maya Jackson in Forum Theatre’s generally zesty world-premiere production, Holly initially exudes an arrogance that could easily be a saint’s besetting sin. Giving her bemused new tutor Mia (Dawn Thomas) a tour of the doll trove, the teen radiates cold impatience, tempered by abrupt, artificial smiles. “Can you please save your questions until I’m finished?” she snaps at Mia after discoursing on various dolls’ nationalities, market value and NRFB (“Never Removed From the Box”) status.
But Holly’s cocky self-righteousness undergoes an evolution in “Holly Down in Heaven,” a work that’s occasionally low on forward momentum but abounds in enjoyable quirkiness, wry incongruities and sharp, riposte-peppered dialogue. The play is a coming-of-age as well as a maturing-of-faith tale, but those shrewdly veiled subtexts don’t preclude a Pop Rocks-downing video-game-addict character; a doll who speaks in the tones of Kofi Annan; and a foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy who’s the spitting image of Carol Channing.
In director Michael Dove’s production, shelves crammed with dolls loom around a bed, a desk and an upward-climbing staircase. (Steven T. Royal is the scenic designer. Debra Crerie and Kay Rzasa designed the properties.) Venturing down the stairs periodically are Holly’s overindulgent father (KenYatta Rogers) and Mia, whose attempts to tutor Holly frequently spiral into testy confrontations.
Those aren’t the only conflicts ensnaring the young Christian: When human visitors aren’t present, she turns to her dolls for advice, but the toys manipulate and browbeat her. The Annan-voiced doll can’t keep battles of doll identity politics from erupting. (“You a Asia-phile!” a black doll complains to Holly, who is particularly fond of a Japanese-costumed wind-up manikin.) And Dr. McNuthin, the Channing look-alike who acts as Holly’s psychiatrist, bosses the girl around.
That the dolls are channeling Holly’s anxieties and confused perceptions is a suggestion dramatist Corthron prudently refrains from spelling out. Dove’s production plays up the scenario’s surrealism: Puppeteers, operating in full view of the audience, bring the dolls to life. Vanessa Strickland, who animates Dr. McNuthin, does a fabulous job of investing the red-pantsuit-clad dummy with drawling, a domineering personality. (Luke Cieslewicz and KyoSin handle other dolls; sound designer Thomas Sowers supplies spooky mutinous-toy noises.)
Dr. McNuthin does have competition in the personality department. While sometimes seeming older than 15, Jackson’s Holly segues convincingly from childish raptness to brooding apprehension to bratty insolence. (“This will sound strange, so brace yourself,” she admonishes God at one point, as she prepares a confessional prayer.) Rogers slightly overdoes the goofiness of Holly’s father, but Thomas brings flair to the role of Mia, who seems a pallid character, until she reveals neurotic depths in a memorable comic monologue, delivered at breakneck speed.
The production owes some of its funniest and most electric moments to actor Parker Drown, who depicts Holly’s endearingly delinquent, video-game-playing ex-boyfriend, Yager. A sequence in which Yager splutteringly washes Pop Rocks down with Pepsi to see if his head will explode is priceless.
One wishes Corthron had written a little more of Yager into the play. After all, “Holly Down in Heaven” is a study of a teen who has trouble connecting with real people, and Holly’s improbable bonding with Yager seems potentially significant. One also yearns for a stronger sense that the zaniness in Holly’s world is a sign of gathering crisis, rather than a strand of kooky color woven in to divert the theatergoer.
Still, Corthron ultimately evokes an emotional journey, as well as a hallucinatory landscape. By the end of Holly’s basement sojourn, it becomes clear to the girl, and to us, that even saints can’t remain NRFB — and that’s okay.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Kara Lee Corthron. Directed by Michael Dove; lighting, Brittany Diliberto; costumes, Denise Umland; dramaturg, Laura Miller; fight choreographer, Cliff Williams III. About two hours. Through Oct. 20 at Round House Theatre, Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit www.forum-theatre.org or call 240-644-1100.