Playwright: Philip Dawkins. At: Northlight Theatre at Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 1-312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $20-$40. Runs through: Nov. 8
Philip Dawkins is impressive in his refusal to write small and easy plays; y'know, three characters in a living room. He prefers to toss many characters into complex relationships and let his audiences observe them sputter and dance like bacon in a pan. Charm is like that. Its energy, theatricality and color are high recommendations, along with its unusual subject matter.
The play's focus is Mama Darleena ( Dexter Zollicoffer ), a self-described "old tranny" who teaches a class in etiquette and manners ( which together equal charm ) at a center for LGBTQ youth. The kids are multicultural, all of them street-hardened beyond their years, most of them uncommunicative and defensive even with each other, and most of them either transitioning or transitioned. Some are uncommunicative by attitude, others because they lack the ability to verbalize what they think or feel. "They may cut up and act a fool," Mama Darleena says to the center's program director ( Elizabeth Ledo ), "but all they need is some discipline and some manners." It's a rocky course Mama Darleena sets herselfnot for the first time in her life, we learnand both she and the kids are different by the end. The kids come to understand that it's okay not simply to care, but to express that you care. They may not show this newly tender face to the larger world, but at least they show it to each other.
The play is almost necessarily episodic, with Dawkins juggling nine characters and, amazingly, giving all nearly equal attention so none drop away. We don't see all their "aha" moments as the play leaps forward, but we see the results or at least sense them. Less satisfactory are a somewhat-forced conflict and a feel-good conclusion. The play stops rather than completing the storylines of the characters. To be polite, one may infer that this story continues rather than coming to an end.
The company is splendid under Northlight artistic director BJ Jones, who, to his credit, came up with the idea for Charm and nurtured it with Dawkins. The design elements are simplicity itself, but Jones' staging nearly is choreographic in the constant and complex movement of the cast. Tall Dexter Zollicoffer, even taller in red high heels ( Izumi Inaba, costumes ), is commanding and masterful as Mama Darleena, signaling rue or authority with equal effectiveness. I expect this will be a Jeff Award-nominated performance. Each supporting actor creates a well-etched character, often pointed: Armand Fields, Monica Orozco, Julian Parker, Britney Love Smith, Namir Smallwood, Matthew Sherback and Awate Serequeberhan. Several act cross-gender roles, but I won't say who.
Charm is inspired by the real-life Gloria Allen, whose life surely is a work of art and triumph of the spirit.