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"Wild with Happy" at Center Stage

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see "Wild With Happy" at Center Stage. She brings us this review.

The Rousuck Review: "Wild With Happy" at Center Stage

A play about grief called “Wild with Happy.” Right there you know that playwright Colman Domingo is up to something different. Throw in a car chase and prominent references to Cinderella, and you get an exuberantly theatrical, original, risk-taking piece of theater.

Oh, yes – and “Wild with Happy” includes a range of gay African-American male characters, jumps around in time, and at Center Stage, it’s as funny as it is moving. It’s also a complicated play to get right. But director Jeremy B. Cohen navigates its many unexpected twists and turns with stunning finesse.

The play opens with the protagonist, Gil, delivering a monologue -- that verges on a stand-up routine -- in front of a red theater curtain and proscenium arch. Actor Forrest McClendon lures us in with lively storytelling. Gil’s over-the-top monologue about what drove his mother back to church – and drove him away – is soon populated with an even more over-the-top preacher and churchwoman. Hang on tight -- we have left the natural world and entered the theatrical. 

Then suddenly, we’re at a funeral parlor, and the talk turns to bodies and caskets and cremation versus burial. Gil’s mother has died. He’s feeling angry and inappropriate – but no more inappropriate than the young funeral director, coyly played by James Ijames. The funeral director adopts a hands-on approach to soothing the bereaved.

Where does Cinderella fit in? Gil’s mother, who appears in a series of upbeat flashbacks, believed in Cinderella and fairy tales and happily-ever-after. Gil doesn’t believe in anything.

When Gil’s aunt discovers that he’s had her “onliest” sister cremated and he’s nixed a church service, well, Aunt Glo isn’t one to keep her feelings to herself – or her hands off her dead sister’s wardrobe. Stephanie Berry plays both Gil’s mother and his aunt; she switches from sweet and fantasy-loving to loud and bossy at the turn of a tiara.

I won’t tell you how the car chase comes about or who’s chasing whom or where they end up. Suffice it to say that “Wild with Happy” is full of wild turns and unlikely destinations. 

But then, so is grief. The death of a parent can plunge a child – even an adult child – into an abyss he’s never imagined, an abyss he may have trouble escaping.

But with the help and guidance of his flamboyant best friend (played with gusto by Chivas Michael), Gil finds a way to honor his mother’s joyous spirit in a joyous way – a way that lets us know her spirit will live on in him.

In just 100 minutes, “Wild with Happy” takes you on a whirlwind journey across more than a half dozen states, several stages of grief, and dramatic styles ranging from magic realism to the Magic Kingdom. And if you give yourself over to the play’s magic, it will touch a chord with anyone who’s ever suffered a loss. 

We may each deal with grief in our own way, but “Wild with Happy” reminds us that we don’t have to do it in isolation. Friends, family and, yes, this wonderfully quirky play – splendidly realized at Center Stage -- can help. That’s theatrical catharsis of the first order.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck      

“Wild with Happy” continues at Center Stage through June 29.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.