Ellen Lewis is not really sure what started her writing Dorothy’s Dictionary, the two-character play that will have its world premiere at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab next week (Nov. 19), but she knows she wanted to create a script about “books and words and libraries and the power of stories. All that is kind of what I’m made of,” she says.
What emerged is a tale of a retired librarian, in ill health and failing eyesight, who is assigned a wayward teenager to visit her three times a week and read books to her as his court-ordered community service assignment. Dorothy is initially dubious about accepting the mandatory presence of Zan, and he is positive he has better things to do than waste his afternoons with this old woman. But over time, divided neatly into 12 chapters, a bond forms between them as they come to accept the power of friendship and great literature.
Lewis, who lives in Portland, Ore., does recall when she completed the first draft of Dorothy’s Dictionary, for it was “unhandily, just before the pandemic began.” That resulted in a handful of Zoom readings of the play, as it went through major revisions in search of its optimum form.
Along the way, it had a couple of those remote readings at Palm Beach Dramaworks, where the play acquired actors Karen Stephens and Elijah Moseley, who will comprise the cast at Theatre Lab, as well as the Lab’s artistic director Matt Stabile, who will stage the imminent full production.
Lewis gives Stabile a lot of credit for helping the play evolve. “He has a great new-play sense. He just has wise questions about the play that helped me kind of find it,” she says, “The structure was there, nut he helped me delve deeper, clarifying.”
As Stabile recalls, Dorothy’s Dictionary stood out among the scripts that came his way during COVID. “Over the past few years we’re gotten a lot of plays about how broken the world is, how things are horrible and why they’re horrible. I think it’s important to do those plays and we are doing those plays, but I also think it’s important to do plays about how desperately we still need to believe in the possibility of one another. That there’s still something worth hoping for in each other, and that’s what this play is about for me.
“It’s about two people who could make the initial choice to give up on each other or to not find value in the other person’s experience, but what ends up happening is they find incredible value and both of their lives are changed by this,” he says. “I think it’s just as important to have stories about that, about hope and human connection. There has to be a reason for us to keep talking to each other, because there are plenty of reasons for us to stop.”
Carbonell Award winner Stephens responded immediately to the script she read. “I liked both of these characters. I loved how the relationship grows between Dorothy and Zan. I liked the script itself, the subject matter, and I liked how it ends.”
She found Dorothy to be easy to identify with. “She suffers no fools. I’m a bit like that,” notes Stephens. “It takes her a while to build trust with Zan. I’m like that with people, even though I present otherwise.”
Moseley, too, sees a lot of himself in Zan. “I remember when I was 15, the age of the character, I had a life that was headed down a pretty rough path. And I remember having a teacher who steered me in the right direction. If that hadn’t happened, there’s no telling where I’d be. This script has always resonated with me because of that,” he says. “To me, it’s such an important story and I hope it can resonate with more kids who need to see that there are people out there who will care and offer guidance if they can open themselves up to trust and connect.”
After so many Zoom readings, Lewis is eager to see Dorothy’s Dictionary in a complete staging with an audience in the room. “I want to see this baby up on its feet to see how it works. I’m looking forward to seeing the flow of the play and the transitions,” says Lewis. “Transitions are really important. How does it move? How is the flow in the growth of the relationship? Spatially, how does it work?”
Asked why theatergoers should come see Dorothy’s Dictionary, Moseley gets the last word. “Obviously for the deeper human intergenerational connections,” he offers. “But honestly, on the surface this is a great play to love if you like books. If you like to read, and a lot of people do, you will enjoy this play.”
DOROTHY’S DICTIONARY, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Sat., Nov. 19–Sunday, Dec. 11. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fau.edu/artsandletters/theatrelab/.