Signature Theater once again welcomes the public to its ARK space with Daphne’s plunge, a dazzling, powerful and moving ensemble piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, perfectly suited to Signature’s intimate theatrical space.
Daphne’s — a neighborhood watering hole in North Philadelphia — is the dive bar of choice for an eclectic group of people who become a tight-knit, caring community in the 20 years the play follows them. Like most neighborhood bars, it’s familiar, cozy and comfortable, but also a little worn and seedy. Set designer Meghan Raham and the properties team of Jenn Callaghan and Vanessa Spring Frank have done an incredible job creating the perfect space for director Paige Hernandez and her talented cast to bring the story to life.
The story begins with Daphne (Rayanne Gonzales) pouring drinks and swapping barbs with two of her regulars. Pablo (Jonathan Atkinson) is a starving artist who is currently obsessed with creating art from people’s trash, and Rey (Jefferson A. Russell), is a free spirit who travels light on his Honda Goldwing motorcycle. They are soon joined by Daphne’s sister, Inez (Yesenia Iglesias) and her husband Acosta (James Whalen), a top businessman who is always looking for new worlds to conquer. Rey works for a living (and as little as possible), and her past association with Acosta soon leads to a new job offer. Next on the scene is Jenn (Quynh-My Luu), a passionate young activist for equality and social justice, fresh from her last protest (and dressed in the revealing stars and stripes bikini she wears to draw attention to attention to his cause of the day). Rounding out the seven-person set is Ruby (Jyline Carranza), a nine-year-old who literally falls out of the sky and into Daphne’s life, at the end of the opening scene.
Hudes wrote complex and nuanced characters, with deftly interwoven storylines. Each character has a well-developed story, and they all have secrets and scars that are revealed as the play unfolds. Their stories are told through a series of vignettes that check in with the bar’s inhabitants every four or five years. Each scene features each character’s ongoing story arc as they grow, age, and face ever-changing challenges.
The world they inhabit is raw and real, and Hudes is quick to tackle a wide variety of themes and issues: poverty, racism, inequality, crime, incest, marital infidelity and divorce, domestic violence, homosexuality, mental health and suicide all impact their lives, but Hudes shows a deft touch by giving each theme a moment of focus, without overemphasizing any of them. And to her credit, she resists the urge to make any of the characters a foil for the others – each character comes with a strong voice. Their stories aren’t easy to watch – tragedy follows triumph as night follows day for all, but there are plenty of moments of situational humor and witty banter to provide respite from the heavier parties. of the room. Hudes paints a lively and realistic picture, without becoming tearful. His characters fall and rise to face the struggle of a new day. Their lives are austere, but not gloomy – there are many moments of music, dancing and joy amid the struggles.
Hernandez and his accomplished and veteran cast make the most of the rich story and well-developed characters they got to work with. Rayanne Gonzales inhabits the role of Daphne as if it were written for her, with an inner strength and emotional depth that is a joy to watch. His pain is both physical and emotional, but the source of that pain isn’t fully understood until the very end of the show, in a surprise plot that is revealed without words: Gonzales’ heart rips with sobs and the Anxious, tear-streaked face leaves no doubt about the past trauma that marked Daphne for life.
Despite all of this, Daphne is the guardian and protector of all who share her little world, even going so far as to adopt Ruby and raise her as her own daughter. Ruby is perhaps the most challenging role in the play, and Jyline Carranza transitions from a believable nine-year-old to a 29-year-old alcoholic adult seamlessly. Along with Gonzales, she experiences some of the show’s heaviest emotional uplifts, including her own moment of unbridled heartbreak, which she shares with Atkinson’s Pablo and Daphne. In the intimate space of the ARK, there are no fake tears; one can only imagine what kind of sensory memories these brilliant actors must recall, to produce such genuine and honest tears.
Pablo is a character that would be easy to overplay, but Atkinson brings a light, sweet touch to the role, and never lets him stray into the tortured artist stereotype. Pablo’s passion and creativity are on full display, as is his empathy and compassion. Her dedication to her art brings energy to the story and reminds us all of the importance of art and culture.
Inez and Acosta are the power couple of the group, but they go back to Daphne because it’s their home. They moved out of downtown and into the suburbs, as Inez sarcastically notes when speaking of how Puerto Rican immigrants have “the biggest house on the street!” She makes a few jokes about white neighbors that would come off as cheap, gratuitous laughs in the hands of a lesser actor, but Iglesias handles them with just the right delivery. Playing Inez is a balancing act in many ways – she works in a setting that serves the greater good, but she’s also very concerned about appearances – and Iglesias makes the most of the moments the script gives her to shine.
Acosta, on the other hand, focuses more on opportunities and status. A successful businessman, he is very proud of the employment and economic development he has brought to his part of town. He capitalizes on this for an equally successful political career, but he quickly learns the moral and ideological price to pay to climb the political ladder. Whalen plays it with flair and panache, often doing his best when reacting to others. Acosta doesn’t talk as much as the rest of the band – he’s, at heart, a doer – and we learn more about him through the stories others tell about him, than we learn from Acosta. -same.
Where Acosta thinks locally, Jenn thinks globally and in the absolute. There are no shades of gray for her, only wrongs to be righted. Her story compels Luu to transition the character from eccentric young protester to unapologetic activist fairly quickly, and the intensity she brings to the role is remarkable. Where Jenn is an ideologue preoccupied with global issues, Acosta is practical and pragmatic, focusing on what can be done to make her corner of the world a better place. They are the perfect two sides of the same coin.
And then there’s Rey – the group’s hedonistic, bohemian philosopher. He participates less in mundane group chatter, but observes, then offers insight, often through longer, more substantial monologues. In one of the quietest and most moving moments in the play, it’s Rey telling us why Acosta is so committed to serving the community. Jefferson A. Russell does a masterful job of quietly taking charge of a scene, and Rey is the one to bring balance and perspective to many of the moments of crisis and tension that arise.
Each cast member brings a standout performance to this production, and Hernandez has fused them into a formidable ensemble, carefully orchestrating changes in pacing, pitch, volume, and intensity to create a gripping story. His staging is natural and organic, with no extraneous movement. Carefully used tables keep the action focused where it needs to be. Scene changes are quick and the flow of the show is impeccable. Hernandez has served the material well, and her directorial instincts are flawless.
The other members of the production team also deserve well-deserved congratulations. Moyenda Kulemeka’s costumes create the right feel for each character. The attention to detail helps denote the passing years – for example, when we first meet Rey he’s wearing a bandana and amber aviator sunglasses; at the end of the show, it is a driving cap, with reading glasses hanging from a strap around the neck. John D. Alexander’s lighting is clean, with an underlying sophistication that uses the play of light and shadow to maximum effect. (A bit of soft flickering light on the faces of people watching unseen TV, during the election night tableau, would have made a nice touch – but it’s a very minor issue.) Sound designer Kenny Neal crafted a pre-show radio show that combines period music and appropriate announcer segments, then transitions to a distant, off-stage siren that sets the perfect tone for the start of the show. Similar radio processing would have put in place the chronological shifts that nicely accompany each change of scene; perhaps budgetary and copyright considerations made this impractical. Likewise, a bit more ambient audio highlighting several of the scenes could have added an extra layer of patina to a great production.
An evening at Daphne’s plunge will make you think and take you on a moving emotional journey, as you look at the world through the eyes of these seven beautifully flawed people. There’s no happiness after the end, but Hudes does a believable job of solving the problems, and Hernandez and company will welcome you into their community. Will see by Daphne Diving – by the end of the evening you will feel like a regular.
The duration is approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Daphne’s plunge runs until March 20. For more information, visit the Signature website here.
(Non-performance note: Ali’s Bar has reopened at Signature, and it’s a great place for a delicious light bite and pre-show drink, at a very reasonable price. If you’re looking for a place to eat before the show, it’s a great way to support Signature programs.)