The play is about a fifteen year old pregnant girl (!) who retreats to her father’s basement for the duration of her pregnancy, and who communicates mostly with her 250+ dolls, many of whom talk to her throughout the show. I understand that we are subscribers (members) of Forum, and see all the (usually excellent) productions. I understand that the two review of “Holly” that I read (Washington Post, and Washington City Paper) were very positive. But, with this story line, I could not see how I could possibly like the show. Only my usual willingness to keep an open mind led me to avoid thinking of excuses not to see the play.
Boy, was I wrong. From the very beginning, “Holly Down in Heaven” amused me and touched me. Holly, it turns out, is a smart young woman, whose pregnancy was not the result of a wild young life. She retreats to her father’s basement (her mother is not living) first because it is comfortable and comforting for her, second, because she is just plain embarrassed about her situation, and third, because she has made an agreement (OK, it’s a one sided agreement) with God that, as penance for allowing herself to get pregnant, she will go into voluntary exile until the baby is born.
Sure, the dolls are a gimmick, so that the play will contain dialogue while Holly is alone in the basement, but the talking dolls do say something thought provoking things, and the Carol Channing doll (really a puppet more than a doll) is one of the stars of the show. (In talking with director Michael Dove, he told me that the Carol Channing doll was in fact one of the original inspirations to playwright Kara Lee Corthrown for the show; something to do with a Carol Channing puppet, bought from a toy catalog and a young relative of the playwright loving the puppet but having no idea who Carol Channing is)
Throw into the mix (1) a devoted, but somewhat befuddled father, who wishes his daughter would get an abortion and come up from the basement, (2) a young woman engaged as a tutor who, it turns out is really a graduate student who has never tutored before and her own hang-ups about men and her relationship to them, and (3) the (former) boyfriend, who is a neighbor, who really likes Holly, does not understand why she is in the basement or why she doesn’t seem to like him any more, and for most of the play has no idea that she is pregnant and that he is about to be a father. You have the makings for a funny and touching story, as long as the playwright and the actors are up to the task. Well, it turns out that Ms. Corthron has a wonderful way with dialogue (it’s sharp, and witty, and pointed and, in spite of some raw language, never offends), and the actors (and puppeteers) are all excellent with special kudos to Maya Jackson who plays the demanding role of Holly.
This week and weekend are the end of the run, so try to see it if you can.
And the lesson learned is that, as you cannot judge a book by its cover, or a bottle of wine by its label (although I tend to do both), you cannot judge a play by the basics of the subject matter.