She wins over her “Babies” as she calls them with her svelte good looks, her good taste, her maternal instinct, and her ability to see though their facades, their anger and their desperate need. They begin to treat each other better and feel differently about themselves and their futures. Then she comes into conflict with D, the administrator of the Youth Programs at The Center, who finds that Mama’s judgmental attitudes about conformity are politically incorrect and may not be of any use to the new students in their environments. And there is also a traitor in their midst, one who wants to take Mama down.
Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins makes a memorable New York debut with an involving and engrossing play which at the performance under review you could have heard a pin drop, so rapt was the audience. The play is, indeed, flawed by its avoiding real confrontations time and again, always stopping short of out and out war. Inspired by the true story of Miss Gloria Allen who volunteered to teach a class in etiquette at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, Charm is both a fascinating story and it covers unexplored territory on our stages. As Mama Andrews, the elegant Sandra Caldwell is both charismatic and compelling, never fazed by the behavior of the class even when they pay her no mind or reject her teachings.
Under the assured and polished staging of Will Davis, newly appointed artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company, Much of the wonderful cast is themselves transgender so that they bring an authority to their roles that adds to their portrayals. Hailie Sahar makes a beautiful, angry Ariela, a 33-year-old Puerto Rican American, a survivor of 20 years on the streets. As the reticent twentyish gangbanger male-identified Beta hiding behind dark sunglasses, Marquise Vilson remains a sinister enigma until he tells his whole story to Mama. Mama’s most vigorous opponent is D., played by a fine Kelli Simpkins, the social worker/administrator, who is as set in her ways as Mama is set in her own.
Michael Lorz gets a great deal of mileage out of Logan, an 18 year old cisgender gay male, very androgynous, a college student who comes from privilege at first seems out of place at The Center. Jojo Brown makes 19-year-old Jonelle who is experimenting with her gender expression, though currently identifying as a female, a very acerbic though self-possessed and ambitious community college student. The most difficult part must be Lady, played by Marky Irene Diven, who has a difficult time expressing her gender, accepted as neither male nor female. Lauren F. Walker and Michael David Baldwin play Victoria and Donnie, a homeless heterosexual couple and parents of two children who are in custody, who argue vociferously with each other and come to Charm class for the free food but stay for the future that it holds out to them.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s realistic classroom set works well for the other scenes such as the bus stop and a thrift shop. The costumes by Oana Botez are particularly notable for creating the different sartorial styles of the various characters. Dave Bova does particularly fine work with hair, wig and make-up design for the various gender representations. Ben Stanton has fun with the lighting design for a room in which the lighting is on a motion sensor and can go off at any moment.
Philip Dawkins’ Charm immediately creates very distinct personalities among its nine characters as soon as we meet them. It is one of the few plays that makes you care about the welfare and the futures of the people it introduces. As such it is one of the most satisfying and rewarding plays in town. It also demonstrates the message that if you change your behavior you can alter you self-image and outlook on life.
Charm (extended through October 15, 2017)
Lucille Lortel Theatre, Christopher Street, in New York
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission