Gloucester Stage Company is on a roll this summer. On the heels of its stunning “Sweet and Sad,” the North Shore venue offers up “Out of Sterno,” a dazzling production about female empowerment that is impossible not to like. This is one you will not want to miss.
Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play features Dotty, a 23-year-old who has spent the last seven years of marriage sequestered in her apartment, occupying her days in ways that would make Pee Wee Herman feel right at home. Dotty’s “playhouse” includes toys, gadgets and puppet characters (although her appliances and furniture don’t talk, which is too bad since Dotty believes everything she is told, and even a chair would have better advice to offer than her mother’s).
Amanda Collins as Dotty replays the first time she met her husband.
She has a crafts table where she constructs kindergarten art projects based on domesticity and a VCR where she watches re-enactments of her first meeting with Hamel, her perfect husband who has forbidden her to leave the apartment or answer the phone. The rest of her day is spent doing laundry and preparing the same dinner for Hamel — a smiley-faced hamburger. Although this is Sterno, not Puppetland, Dotty and Pee Wee are two peas in an infantile pod, their exaggerated cheer at times bordering on hysteria.
Dotty’s hermetic world is unsealed the day she receives a mysterious phone call and finds a nude girlie picture in Hamel’s grease monkey overalls. Her ordered world is suddenly topsy-turvey. She decides to disobey Hamel and track down the truth.
Once she leaves her apartment, our modern-day Dorothy discovers she is not in Kansas anymore. “Life was so much simpler when I never left the apartment,” she rues.
Her yellow brick road leads her first to Zena (a force to be reckoned with as played by Jennifer Ellis), the she-devil beautician who gives Dotty a primer in what womanhood can look like. The textbook is “Beautiful or Bust” magazine and the uniform includes false boobs, a wig and stilettos guaranteed to lead to debilitating foot problems. It also includes tutelage in Zena’s tried-and-true method to make it as a woman in a man’s world: steal another woman’s husband.
By way of illustration, Zena tells Dotty she has sunk her razor-sharp claws into potential husband number six. Before Dotty realizes that it is her own Hamel whom Zena is prattling on and on about snatching, she too falls under Zena’s foul-mouthed spell, finding womanly self-worth and identity by wearing Zena’s animal print jumpsuits and scrubbing her salon’s toilets with a toothbrush.
Amanda Collins (Dotty) finds female fulfillment scrubbing Zena’s toilets with a toothbrush.
Dotty meets many characters no less colorful than Conky, Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne while on her quest for the meaning of womanhood. Richard Snee plays each of these cameo roles with relish and panache. These include a cabbie, a professor, other beauty shop clients, and Dotty’s new “bus buddies” — a militant feminist, a pregnant Southern lady and a geeky salesman.
Each offers her a manifesto, a code of ethics and a dress code. Like the blind men feeling the elephant in the Indian parable, each has his or her narrow, subjective perspective based on a single experience that fails to account for other possible truths or for a totality of truth.
Little by little, Dotty starts to realize that, while each of these guides can help her learn something about herself, only she holds the key that can unlock the mystery of her authentic self.
The extraordinary Amanda Collins as Dotty is reason enough to see the show. She effortlessly brings to the role an openness of curiosity and naïvité (think the un-raunchy elements of Lena Dunham); a slapstick wacky physicality (think Lucille Ball) and an exceptionally expressive face (think pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan). Her delivery is flawless and she radiates an inner light that draws the audience’s attention like a moth to a flame.
Paula Plum’s direction is full of surprises, such as props falling from the ceiling, and jaw-dropping brilliance, such as the staging of the final scene. The music has the breeziness of “The Pink Panther” and “Mad Men” and the set designs make creative use of overhead projectors, billowing curtains and backlit shadows.
“Out of Sterno” is particularly relevant in the wake of such “news” as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover that shows her authentic female self. As Plum notes in the playbill, “I found it intriguing that Jenner displayed herself through the lens of Beauty Culture: corseted, provocative and heavily made-up. The transformation of this former Olympic athlete to femme fatale poses the question: what makes a ‘real woman’? Is it the sum of our exterior parts?”
Sounds like Jenner should make a trip to Gloucester; Dotty could teach her a thing or two.
Pictured at top: Jennifer Ellis (as Zena), Richard Snee (as beauty shop patron) and Amanda Collins (as Dotty)
“Out of Sterno” runs through July 18 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.