As a child, Sharon Washington grew up on the top floor of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper West Side. This is the enticing jumping-off point for her debut play, Feeding the Dragon, a solo show now running at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Washington has a storyteller's gift for animating her tale with lively and distinct impersonations of people from her past, and her easygoing delivery has a way of making us feel like we're taking part in a story-time hour. That endearing aspect of the show makes Washington a pleasure to watch, but over the course of 80 minutes, her story does not deliver the meaty dramatic morsel that would have transformed this Dragon from a well-performed memoir into a compelling work of theater.
Several steps lined with volumes of books designed to look like rows of library shelves lead up to the stage where Washington describes her family, beginning with her father, whose main job is stoking the library's furnace, the "dragon" of the title. Her mother, a native New Yorker, keeps house in the building's large top-floor apartment, also home to Washington's grandmother and a dog, Brownie. We hear how, as an only child, Washington ran and played through the library after hours with a friend, and how her grandmother, a voracious reader, instilled in Washington a deep love of the written word.
The story then veers from the library to a neighboring bar, where Washington enjoys her first Shirley Temple cocktail while her father has a few drinks. Though her dad says that this little detour should remain their secret, she accidentally reveals the Shirley Temple incident to her mother and detonates a small wrath bomb in the library's quiet halls. Her father, she finds out, is an alcoholic, and his recent lapse is a big issue for her mom. So father and daughter take a trip to his native South Carolina, where they stay with family for a week. But upon returning, her father soon begins drinking again, an issue that he and his wife will contend with for the rest of their lives.
Maria Mileaf directs this show with sensitivity and grace. Washington's story is gorgeously illuminated with five large window-shaped panels in the background (impressive set by Tony Ferrieri), each of them made up of smaller panels of light that evocatively change color from scene to scene — at one point beautifully suggesting the fire of the furnace as it's being relit (lighting design by Ann G. Wrightson). Lindsay Jones's music and sound elements also integrate seamlessly with Washington's words. In these respects, Feeding the Dragon satisfies our appetite for well-executed stagecraft.
Washington's story has moments that glimmer with stage magic too. Her description of being in the same room with her uncle as he paints a picture on his easel gives us a taste of her narrative powers. But absent from this piece is a climactic revelation, other than her father's hazily described struggle with alcohol, or a crisis in need of resolution that elevates the story into the realm of the dramatic. We are teased now and then with topics we wish were explored more, such as Washington's mother's lessons in code-switching and other "survival skills" for an African-American girl living on the Upper West Side in the 1970s. Washington gives us a tantalizing assortment of memories like these to sample in Feeding the Dragon, but in the end we feel hungry for more.