by Margret Echeverria

I got a little stuck while trying to write my review of Charm by Philip Dawkins, which I saw and very much enjoyed at the Lucille Lortel Theatre three nights ago on Christopher Street.  I got stuck because I’m an outsider: A straight person trying to understand transgender issues in a time when the accepted understanding is a moving target and I’m not really sure I’m allowed to talk about it.  Mama Darleena Andrews (Sandra Caldwell) takes a more noble path to know these issues; she sees young people in pain and steps in to help, trusting that understanding will come later, and the angst of misunderstanding is just an opportunity to build better relationships with the people who will run society in the future.

Caldwell gives us a Midwestern angel in Darleena; the accent is perfect, the suits are straight out of my Iowa grandmother’s closet – clean and very modest – and the hand gestures are precise punctuation of what she is communicating – love; always love.  She has volunteered at an LGBT center in Chicago to teach a class of mostly transgender youth the value of charm in their lives and how to execute it.  This is Chicago in 2014 and these kids protect themselves by beginning on the offensive.  The first time we see the class assembled, my favorite character, Jonelle (Jojo Brown), spreads herself in an actual pair of angel’s wings out over the stage, caressing the walls of the classroom and looking out wide-eyed  marking territory.  On Jonelle’s heels is Ariela (Hailie Sahar) who immediately points out what is wrong here: Not everyone in this class is transgender; some are just here for free food.  The couple, Donnie and Victoria (Michael David Baldwin and Lauren F. Walker, respectively), are guilty as charged; they correct each other like an old married pair while scoping out the free eats and speaking to one another in words dripping with the wounds of poverty magnified by having done some time .  Everyone is claiming territory.  Beta (Marquise Vilson) is a bad ass of the quiet, scary variety not to be messed with.  The room gets loud and pregnant with tension.  Lady (Marky Irene Diven) retreats to a corner and talks to herself a bit frantically about separate subjects entirely.  All this personality is thrown at us and Mama Darleena in a matter of seconds.  We chuckle nervously.  Darleena observes, taking in the task before her.  We know she must be terrified at this first meeting of her students, but Caldwell’s body language remains open and her voice, while it insists on being heard, is infused with total acceptance and hope.  We watch her instantly recommit.  Nice direction, Will Davis; you’re scaring us, entertaining us, and we’re examining our own characters all at once.  I mean, what would you do?  Run screaming from the classroom?  Yep.  Maybe.  Few things can stop good intentions in their tracks better than a group of misunderstood kids who are hurting.

Caldwell gives us an example of saintly patience with these kids, but she also teaches them to be patient with her.  No one gets away without learning something about charm.  Charm is a pleasurable way to navigate through the world when you are an outsider.  Knowing how to ask questions, put your attention on someone else, notice the beauty in the world and speak about it in such a way as to engage others  in the pleasure that you are finding in them, is the path to a more successful life, Darleena teaches us.  It’s difficult to get a job if the first thing your employer has to “get” about you is that she doesn’t “get” you.  Charm lets those you work with know that you know the rules, you can follow directions, and you have the discipline to stick with something.  These lessons transcend the difficulty of establishing one’s identity and they can also make it easier to focus on what is important:  Not fighting others, but finding your authentic self, because that is truly charming.

D (Kelli Simpkins) is not one of Darleena’s students, but rather the director of the center.  Her mission is to protect the kids who come through, but this goal has manifested into one of giving the kids a holding pattern rather than a way forward.  There is a wonderful scene of confrontation when Simpkins, who’s look reminded me so much of WKRP’s Andy Travis, throws all manner of conviction at Caldwell about the assured unfairness of the world.  But D gets gently schooled with Miss Darleena’s wisdom around knowing that being nice can coexist with being true to one’s self and these tools can get a person to somewhere comfortable in society.   D had no idea until Mama Darleena came along that she could expect better lives for the members of the center than she had imagined in a very long time.

Don’t get it mixed up, tho.  This show is not glossy or preachy.  Dawkins gets to the sand in the ointment here.  When a teacher puts out that much love, one of her students is bound to get a little too attached.  Sahar give us those vulnerable moments of “hot for teacher” with the tender expression of exclusion which is jealousy.

JoJo Brown and Michael Lorz crushing it in Charm by Philip Dawkins. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A latecomer to the class is Logan (Michael Lorz) who is adorable and falls hard for my crush, Jonelle, the fabulous Brown.  The love is returned, much to our delight.   Lorz moves like a puppy and smiles like a seductive siren.  Vilson serves up a bad ass gone all smoosh when Caldwell coaxes him to tell her who is abusing him and reaches out with her own surplus to help him find peace.

And yes, I was the straight person in the audience enjoying all of this while wondering who was a male, who was female, as well as who identified how, as what gender in the past present and future.  At the end of the show, I didn’t really have any more answers about all that.  But I did feel that maybe I understood more of the human experience than I did when I first sat down in the musty old Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street.  And that understanding told me I had just seen some good theater.

Go see this one, Kids.  I highly recommend it.

Charm – by Philip Dawkins; inspired by Miss Gloria Allen; directed by Will Davis

WITH:  Sandra Caldwell (Mama Darleena Andrews), Kelli Simpkins (D), Hailie Sahar (Ariela), Jojo Brown (Jonelle), Michael David Baldwin (Donnie), Lauren F. Walker (Victoria), Marquise Vilson (Beta), Marky Irene Diven (Lady), Michael Lorz (Logan).

Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes by Oana Botez; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Palmer Hefferan; hair, wig & makeup by Dave Bova; production stage manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht; artistic directors, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler; executive director, Blake West; general manager, Beth Dembrow.

Extended through October 15 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street.  For tickets, visit MCC Theater Website or call: 212.352.3101.  This production runs 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission..