Wild With Happy, a new play by writer/performer Colman Domingo and currently in performances at the Public Theater, is a bit like Disney World, the final destination of the play’s road trip – well-intentioned, sweet and fun, but just a bit too much of all three.
Domingo is an immensely appealing actor known for his lauded performances in The Scottsboro Boys and most recently in the off-Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot and penned this sweet, at times overly sentimental, story about a lost young man coping with the unexpected death of his mother. An out-of-work actor in New York, Gil (“Just Gil – like Cher,” he says) is forced to return to Philadelphia to arrange his mother’s (Sharon Washington) funeral. Wracked with guilt over neglecting his mother at the end of her life, Gil is remote and detached from the proceedings and wants to arrange everything as quickly and inexpensively as possible. He is soon entrenched in a battle with his outspoken aunt Glo (also played by Washington) who is determined to give her sister a proper burial with the community paying respect and is enraged by Gil’s decision to have his mother cremated. As the two butt heads, Gil is joined by his flamboyant best friend Mo (a hilarious Maurice McRae) who pays a visit for moral support and takes his grieving friend on an impromptu road trip to Disney World to lay his mother to rest. The two are followed by a furious Glo and, inexplicably, the funeral director Terry (Korey Jackson) with whom Gil had a brief romantic encounter.
Directed by Robert O’Hara, Wild With Happy is a simplistic production that exhibits its cast’s talent to the fullest. And this is a very talented cast. Domingo, an incredibly physical actor, embodies Gil with the numbing rage that so often accompanies grief. His performance is both angry and honest, and while the character of Gil may be a combination of stereotypes – a gay, outspoken, impatient, flamboyant, New York actor – Domingo gives the role a real authenticity. (When offered sugar with a cup of coffee, he scathingly asks, “I don’t suppose you have blue agave sweetener?”)
As Adelaide and Aunt Glo, Washington gives a tour de force performance of an impressive range. An optimist who is determined to have faith in something, whether it be God or Oprah, Adelaide is a sweet and loving woman who naively wants the best for her son. It is clear why this woman loved Disney World, “the happiest place on Earth.” She transforms seemingly instantaneously into the outspoken, opinionated Aunt Glo who, clad in velour track suits, bursts into Gil’s life whether he likes it or not. One particularly amusing moment takes place when, ranting about the importance of honoring the dead and respecting tradition as well as protecting the late Adelaide from gold digging relatives, Glo matter-of-factly empties Adelaide’s closet, donning outfit after outfit and stuffing the rest into a plastic bag she just happens to have in her pocket.
As the good-hearted Mo, McRae gives an earnest and entertaining performance. He is particularly amusing during the scene changes, remaining in character and striking poses in between moving furniture. (The mobile sets by Clint Ramos are impressive, as the coffins bordering the stage in the funeral home are then utilized as closets and car seats as well. ) Jackson is an assured and kind Terry, the good-hearted funeral director, but he is not given much to work with. One hopes that in another draft of this play, his character is fleshed out.
The sweetness of Wild With Happy borders on saccharine as the road trip/car chase culminates in Disney World. Until then, Gil’s relationship with Adelaide had been portrayed through flashbacks of phone conversations, and his determined distance from his mother had never been explained. After we learn the reason behind his detachment, the play approaches a new level of intimacy and effect, but it does not reach it; instead its ending resorts to a few symbolic cliches. But the impact of the show – a heartfelt tribute to the love of a mother from her son – remains, as does the hope to see Domingo and Washington onstage again very soon.