Words and books are the cherished domain of Dorothy Ross, a former librarian now confined to a convalescent home with an unspecified but serious medical condition and failing eyesight. She is at the center of Dorothy’s Dictionary, a touching, charming, funny and sad new play by E.W. Lewis, now receiving its world premiere in a gently effective production at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab.
Lewis is clearly a kindred spirit of her creation, for she too is a lover of language and literature, a fact that is evident throughout the brief but fully satisfying, 70-minute evening.
As Dorothy, the remarkable Karen Stephens shares the stage with Elijah Moseley. He plays 15-year-old Zan Hart, a lost soul initially brimming with anger, who repeatedly pummeled a fellow student, leading to his arrest and conviction for assault. For his punishment, a wily judge sentenced him to three months of community service — visiting and reading to Dorothy from the stacks of books strewn around her room.
Their relationship begins formally and begrudgingly. What could two people with a gulf of 30 years between them possibly have in common? Zan is inextricably attached to his cellphone. Dorothy is an old-school advocate of the printed word, particularly her well-thumbed dictionary. She has traveled the world, at least as far as a librarian’s salary has taken her. He has never ventured as far as the ocean, even though he lives a mere two hours away from it.
So naturally — well, as naturally as such odd couple conceits go — Dorothy and Zan will grow closer and rub off on each other. And it should come as no surprise that the two of them will be dipping their toes in the sea before the evening is over.
Nevertheless, if the play’s final destination feels inevitable, the journey to get there is well worth taking. Like a book, Dorothy’s Dictionary is divided into chapters, 12 in all, as Zan explains, addressing the audience with his occasional narration. Then the play moves forward in short strokes of dialogue, as Dorothy and Zan get to know one another, and we learn about them both.
Stephens’s Dorothy has a mind that races, even as her body begins to fail her and she faces her own mortality. No wonder she has underlined and highlighted the “to be or not to be” speech, Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, in her dog-eared copy of Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy. Ever the librarian, though, she cautions Zan that he must never mark up a public library book.
Stephens radiates intelligence as well as exasperation over Zan’s initial resistance to wasting his time with reading. Moseley, an FAU graduate of the school’s BFA performance program, displays acting instincts beyond his years. Much of what he communicates is non-verbal as he discovers an affection for Dorothy despite himself. Gradually the chemistry between these two actors — and characters — becomes palpable.
Theatre Lab’s producing artistic director Matt Stabile, who has been instrumental in the play’s development, stages this premiere production with a light touch, injecting movement to a script that could easily have come across as static. He gets admirable support from the company’s usual gang of designers — a simple, but attractive patient’s room, backed by flowing gossamer drapes from resident scenic designer Michael McClain, complemented by Thomas Shorrock’s soft lighting and apt generation gap costumes by Dawn C. Shamburger.
Dorothy’s Dictionary, the first of three world premieres in Theatre Lab’s season, is ultimately about the value of unexpected human connections; But if you learn a few exotic words along the way — like sisu, pohoda or wafwako — or like Zan, you start reading Moby Dick. you will have made Dorothy very happy.
DOROTHY’S DICTIONARY, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Dec. 11. $35-$45. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fau.edu/artsandletters/theatrelab/.