Theatre review: The Dreamer Examines His Pillow
John Patrick Shanley has enjoyed a flurry of award recognitions and nominations in his 30-year career as a playwright, screenwriter, and director.
While the 1987 film Moonstruck and the 2004 play Doubt: A Parable are the two creations that had brought this 61-year-old self-made American — born in The Bronx to working-class parents — international acclaim, Doppelganger Theatre Company has unearthed one of his relatively less illustrious works.
Lee Mason (who cuts an uncanny resemblance to Mason Lee, son of award-winning director Ang Lee) directs this impressive staging of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow — a startlingly instructive piece written when Shanley was only 35. Revealing the playwright in a poignantly introspective mood, it is lush, weird, and very deep.
The play explores sex, and intimacy, the fear of losing all of oneself in that intimacy, the lengths taken to escape from that fear, and the eventual regret that results from it. There is also, in the exhortation to live and to grow with the benefit of past vicarious experience, an element of final redemption.
These themes are hardly new — think about the books, the films, theatre, and music that have tackled these issues without relent — but Shanley’s writing that exploits our raw and visceral consciousness is what gives them that sensual and breathtaking quality.
Tommy is a 20-something would-be artist. In the grim squalor of his spartan apartment at The Bronx, he is drinking himself to waste.
Grappling with a crisis of self-loathing that he expresses in a hideous self-portrait, Tommy communes with his refrigerator and with the devil he is convinced lives inside him.
His drunken stupor is interrupted when his ex-lover, Donna, bursts into the room and interrogates him about sleeping with her 16-year old sister. Tommy blames his inner demon for this misdemeanour, and for the inexplicable act of robbing his own mother.
Confounded by her helpless desire for the man she loves to hate — the man who increasingly reminds her of the dad she despises — Donna decides to call on her estranged father for advice, nonetheless.
A painter who has hung up his palette since her mother’s death, Donna’s father remains as cruel to the ones he loves as he was to the wife he cheated on, humiliated, and savaged.
Still, in the storm of acerbity and strong words, the moments of tenderness implicit in Shanley’s writing are by no means absent in Lee’s tightly structured production: in an honest outpouring of well-buried thoughts and emotions, Donna lets on about the wild frontiers that sex with Tommy invariably takes her to, before her father falls into a cathartic explosion full of anguish and remorse.
The title refers obliquely to the father in a metaphor he shares with his bewildered daughter. After a dream in which he copped the policeman’s gun shot for a petty thief in the confusion of a roadside accident, he tells Donna, the dents on his pillow are salutary reminders of what it means to sacrifice himself for someone (or something) unworthy.
Michael Argus as Tommy — hauntingly reminiscent of Thomas M Wright in Malthouse Theatre’s 2011 production of Baal — delivers a brilliant portrayal of a young man bedevilled by his love for Donna, and by his instinctive compulsion to flee from her grasp.
Steph Panozzo is truly stunning in her high-energy, multi-layered performance as Donna, with a Bronx accent, like her co-performers’, that is sumptuous and almost authentic.
And Michael Robins’ Father, bristling with brio and vehemence, earns sympathy and (strangely) respect as he tries to educate Tommy away from his own mis-steps, from becoming like him, as he, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow.