Review: 'Feeding The Dragon' At Hartford Stage. Some Stories Need Help

 Sharon Washington in "Feeding the Dragon"  All photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Sharon Washington in "Feeding the Dragon"  All photos by T. Charles Erickson.

The show: "Feeding the Dragon" at Hartford Stage

First impressions: Be careful when your friends tell you that you simply must write about some incident about your life. Their intentions may be sincere but it takes more than good wishes to put together a compelling book, movie or play.

What's it about?: Sharon Washington had an unusual childhood, growing up in the custodial apartment of a branch of the New York Public Library and above it -- literally.  

Good so far: Yes, it got my attention, having loved going to the library when I was a kid and spending countless hours there. But the anecdotes in this solo show are disappointingly thin -- a so-what story about the family dog that ran loose in the building falls especially flat -- and many more family remembrances have a nostalgic glow but are less than dynamic, lacking conflict or significant heft or exploration.

Most problematic is that the characters -- including those of her family members  -- are especially sketchy. One of the reasons may be that Washington, a very talented actress when in other people's plays, movies and TV shows, simply does not have the material to dig deeper. At several key moments she reverts to speculation of what her parents or uncle or some other relative might have thought or felt. For instance, in speaking about when Washington was accepted at a private East Side school, she speculates on the discomfort her mother may have felt in attending parents meetings there. But she simply projects here,  On the other hand, perhaps her mother was warmly welcomed at the progressive school in the '70s. If her mother did feel rejected or shunned, she gives zero evidence. 

Indeed, Washington often recounts how little she knew of her family's private side. After all, that's what many parents do; keep things from their kids to protect them from details they might not understand. But dramatists should demand more and audiences definitely do. Here, the discovery of her mother's secret cache of elegant clothes she never wore is revealed in hushed tones -- but it remains a fuzzy mystery. Her father's alcoholism -- the most dramatic aspect of an otherwise  drama-free story -- is also not explored in any detail, save for the suggestion that he might have been happier in his Southern hometown where he was known as "King."

But still, growing up in a library sounds so cool.: Yes, it certainly is a great hook and a promising setting for story-telling. But this potentially fantastical coming-of-age environment doesn't result in many unique delights nor does it add up to anything larger than the fact of address.. Pretend swords-play with a friend in the aisles after closing is about as colorful as it gets,. Here and there Washington takes out a book from the stacks around her and finds a relevant quote from a famous author -- to minimal effect.. But overall this metaphoric setting -- especially one so handsomely presented by set designer Tony Ferrieri and lovingly lit by Ann Wrightson -- never has transformative meaning. Nor does the play's metaphoric title, which refers to her father needing to keep the furnace going 24/7.

 

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Who will like it:  Librarians. 

Who won't?: Dramatists.

For the kids?: Perfectly acceptable stories but youngsters might prefer to read a book instead. 

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Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Everyone has a story, sure, but some are richer and more engaging than others. Solo show is Cliff Notes version of what might be a more satisfying volume.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Sometimes you need someone to push you harder, make you dig deeper and take a look at the bigger picture. Washington would have been better served to make her rough draft more complete.

The Basics: The show runs though Feb. 4 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. The show will then move off-Broadway to Primary Stages. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays at 8:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesday matinee only on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m.  Tickets start at $24 and top ticket prices depends on variable factors; check with box office. www.hartfordstage.org and 860-527-5151.