“Dorothy’s Dictionary” Explores the Magic of Books

By Mary Damiano

I love books. My earliest memory is of guests arriving at our home, and three-year-old me sitting in a big chair with a big, grown-up book, not being able to read it but hoping our guests would think I could, because to me, reading was the greatest thing in the world, and I wanted people to think I already had that super-power. 

The library where I grew up in Jersey City had a wall of glass windows and a staircase inside in front of those windows. I never tired of the view of the city as I ascended that staircase, a perfect view for a library, which put the entire world at my five-year-old fingertips. It was a proud day when I got my first library card—that little blue piece of cardboard was my passport to the world. When we moved to Hollywood, Florida the summer I was eleven, I sought out two places—the movie theater and the library—and spent much of that summer ensconced within their walls. They were my haven, my refuge, my escape to other places and other lives.    

The magic of books is celebrated in Dorothy’s Dictionary, a lovely play by E.M. Lewis, now getting its world premiere at Theatre Lab in Boca Raton. The play opens with Zan (Elijah Moseley) telling the audience about an incident at school that got him arrested. The judge sentences him to three months of community service at a convalescent home, where he is to report three times a week to a woman named Dorothy (Karen Stephens) and do whatever she says.

Dorothy is a patient in the home, a wise librarian whose room is filled with stacks of books. Zan’s assignment is pretty simple; he is to read to Dorothy and keep her supplied with library books, but even that is foreign to Zan, a sullen, withdrawn 15-year-old who has never been to a library and never read a book for pleasure. The first book he reads to Dorothy is The Old Man and the Sea, which he chooses because it’s the slimmest volume he can find and it has a boat on the cover. As Zan fulfills his community service, he not only discovers the world of books, but forges a friendship with Dorothy that changes and sustains them both in unexpected ways.

Moseley is perfect as Zan. His body language, and the way he initially avoids eye contact with Dorothy, illustrates his anger and the sadness that has permeated his young life. As Dorothy opens Zan’s mind through books and her no-nonsense life lessons, Moseley beautifully portrays that awakening. Stephens, a veteran performer who has appeared on stages throughout South Florida, delivers another layered, nuanced performance. Dorothy has been dealt a tough hand, but Stephens’ performance concentrates on Dorothy’s innate dignity and strength. Her Dorothy is a combination of straight-forwardness and sass, but some of Stephens’ most interesting moments are when there is no dialogue, and we feel her pain, her gratitude, her relentless light.

Michael McClain’s scenic design gives the story an ethereal quality, while Matt Corey’s sound design and Thomas Shorrock’s lighting enhance a crucial scene toward the end. Dorothy’s Dictionary is another gem from director Matt Stabile and his team, the kind of production that has helped Theatre Lab become a force in South Florida in a relatively short time—a well-written, character-driven play with terrific performances, excellent design elements, a show with real heart that inspires and makes you think.

Today, I have my own library, a room in my house with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with novels and biographies and books about movies and other subjects that interest me, collected over a lifetime. I haven’t been in a public library in some time, because I have all these books here at home, but Dorothy’s Dictionary makes me want to go back, to revel in the stacks and expand my world in new ways.

Dorothy’s Dictionary runs through December 11 at Theatre Lab, located on the FAU campus in Boca Raton.  For more tickets and more information, visit fauevents.com

Note: Theatre Lab has partnered with the Literacy Council of Palm Beach County and is conducting a book drive during the run of Dorothy’s Dictionary, so please contribute your new or gently used books.

Photo: Karen Stephens and Elijah Moseley in Dorothy’s Dictionary. Photo Credit: Morgan Sophia Photography.

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