October 16, 2019

A Divorced Father Meets a Stranger on the Way to “Dauphin Island”; Passage Theatre Succeeds with Edgy, Bittersweet Romantic Comedy

“DAUPHIN ISLAND”: Performances are underway for “Dauphin Island.” Directed by Amina Robinson, the play runs through October 27 at Passage Theatre. Selwyn (SJ Hannah, left) and Kendra (Shadana Patterson) unexpectedly share an intimate moment, but they both face personal challenges that may present obstacles to their ability to build a life together. (Photo by Jeff Stuart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is opening its season with an outstanding production of Dauphin Island. Jeffry Chastang’s bittersweet romantic comedy depicts an unlikely relationship between Kendra Evans, a cancer survivor who lives in seclusion in the piney woods of Wilcox County, Alabama; and Selwyn Tate, an injured stranger who stops at her house, on the way to start a new job.

Dauphin Island received a New Play Award grant from the Edgerton Foundation. Its world premiere was at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2017.

“This season’s shows all grapple with the question of where we come from,” promises Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues. “Our pasts, our families, and the places we grew up all have a huge impact on who we are and how we shape our futures.” She adds, “Dauphin Island is a refreshing play about what happens when we show a little bit of kindness towards each other.”

On the surface “kindness” initially seems an odd word with which to characterize the relationship between the characters. The edgy, gun-wielding Kendra’s first act consists of shackling Selwyn to the railing of her porch, “so you don’t kill me,” she says. Only then does she bandage his injured hand — with cobwebs.

Kendra begrudgingly gives Selwyn the drink of water he requests, but she chides him for being underprepared for his road trip. They spend much of the scene — and the play — bickering. Part of what makes Chastang’s script so theatrical is that it derives some of its humor from the actors’ vocal performance. With strained politeness Selwyn addresses Kendra as “ma’am,” but she observes that his tone of voice suggests a word that is less kind.

Selwyn reveals that he is traveling to Dauphin Island to start a new job, but that he cut his hand while attempting to repair his car. We learn that he is a divorced father who is close to his daughter, Tori, but he may lose his visitation rights unless he can pay child support. We also discover that the circumstances surrounding Kendra’s family life are even stormier. Kendra allows Selwyn to stay until he can get his car repaired. In return he helps her with jobs such as stacking wood and filling the icebox.

In the process of cooking dinner Kendra asks Selwyn to get her some seasoning from a coffee can; he opens the wrong container and accidentally discovers an envelope marked “Southwest Alabama Cosmetic Reconstruction and Breast Implantation.” When he teases her, she angrily tells him about her cancer. Later, in her bedroom, she reluctantly allows him to assist with her bandage wrap.

Eventually Kendra shows Selwyn another room in the house: a “juke joint.” Miss Liza, the mysterious woman who gave Kendra the house, owned a bar. Kendra has been repairing it and dreams of reopening it to the public, despite some brittle floorboards. Kendra and Selwyn dance to music provided by a transistor radio.

Kendra asks Selwyn to partner with her in reopening the bar. She promises him that “this would all be ours” and that they would “make all the rules,” but he is concerned that such a venture is too risky. The romantic mood turns tense when he expresses ambivalence about giving up the job that is waiting for him in Dauphin Island.

The play makes effective use of noise, as well as its absence. The characters spend the early scenes shouting at each other. As the relationship develops there is an overarching decrescendo. The scenes in which Kendra and Selwyn are most intimate contain notable moments of silence. As tensions re-emerge due to a new conflict, the speaking volume also rises again.

Anthony Martinez-Briggs’ sound design heightens tension with noises such as a gunshot. Eerie, atmospheric music opens the show to set an uneasy tone, and recorded excerpts of songs are played to demarcate the scenes.

In addition to the varying noise level, director Amina Robinson utilizes distance to mark the progression of the characters’ relationship. She often places them at opposite ends of the stage in the early scenes, so that the moment in which Selwyn wraps the bandage around Kendra provides sufficient contrast. This use of space is not an uncommon directorial device, but it is quite effective here.

Shadana Patterson’s performance as the streetwise, tough-talking Kendra underlines the character’s readiness to protect herself and her home. Kendra clearly is aware that living alone in the woods (not to mention being ill) makes her vulnerable, so she always is on her guard.

This is well matched by SJ Hannah as the passionate and equally intense, if more outwardly jovial, Selwyn. Where Patterson’s defensive posture lets Kendra set boundaries, Hannah’s body language shows that Selwyn is subtly testing them, though we also see a restless energy that suggests that Selwyn’s encounter with Kendra is a pause in his journey, rather than his ultimate destination.

Both Hannah and Patterson are flawless as they finesse the transition from the characters’ verbal sparring matches, to the gradual display of their vulnerabilities, and the resulting tenderness.

Dauphin Island is presented in one act. This is an astute choice, because the show would not be well served by breaking up the action and mood with an intermission. The tension and energy need to be sustained.

The richly detailed scenic design by Dustin Pettegrew, which captures the rustic atmosphere of Kendra’s home, also highlights character arcs, because the scenery only changes when there are significant plot developments. Initially the only room we see is the kitchen, complete with an old-fashioned black stove, even when the action takes place on the porch. This lets the audience see the house’s interior before Selwyn does. For a play that explores themes of concealment and intimacy, this is an interesting twist.

When Selwyn helps Kendra with her bandage wrap, only then does the set change, to allow us a view of the bedroom. As the plot turns, so does the scenery; the house rotates so that we can see the bar, for the segment in which the relationship is at its zenith.

At a key moment Selwyn compares Kendra to a book. “Every time I think I’m ready to set you down I just have to turn another page,” he tells her. Like the best novels, Dauphin Island immediately establishes a set of mysterious circumstances, and then keeps the audience riveted as the characters reveal their pasts and vulnerabilities to us, and to each other, a bit at a time. Hannah and Patterson have superb chemistry, and their performances ensure that the characters always are believable and distinct, despite the similarities between them.

Both Selwyn and Kendra have had painful circumstances in their past, which impact their lives in the present, making each of them somewhat needy in the face of determined self-reliance. Because of this neediness they both test boundaries, gradually but persistently inserting themselves into the other character’s life. It is this parallel that makes the love story engaging and deeply moving; it is a subtle, untidy, and idiosyncratic love between two flawed human beings.

Following the performance attended by this writer, there was a talkback in which Domingues, Robinson, and the actors were joined by Audrey Walker, director of Healing Stream Breast Cancer Awareness; and Lashelle Pittman, OCN.

Dauphin Island will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through October 27. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.