Quiara Alegría Hudes reunites with director Thomas Kail to launch her residency at Signature Theatre.
Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and director Thomas Kail represent two of the three primary elements that made the musical In the Heights a Tony-winning success. It's no wonder then that Daphne's Dive, the first piece of Hudes' Signature residency, breathes the same, though slightly grittier, air of a flawed yet united community — minus the Lin-Manuel Miranda Latin hip-hop score.
In lieu of a Washington Heights bodega, Hudes shows us a watering hole in Philadelphia (her hometown and the setting for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Water by the Spoonful). Daphne, performed with a warm matriarchal spirit by Vanessa Aspillaga, owns and runs her eponymous bar, Daphne's Dive, where a motley crew of locals religiously congregates.
There's the eccentric artist for whom trash is treasure, Pablo (a fantastic performance from the chameleonic Matthew Saldivar). There's the aging biker, Rey (a lovable, bandana-wearing Joseph Gordon Weiss), who spouts wisdom as he sips beer. Then there's the bohemian Jenn (given an openhearted performance by K.K. Moggie), who, modeled after the famous activist Kathy Change, dances for justice in her flamboyant, piecemeal outfits (designed with a perfect handmade sloppiness by Toni-Leslie James). Other frequent patrons are businessman Acosta (In the Heights veteran Carlos Gomez in a quietly authoritative performance) and his wife, Daphne's sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega, whirling in with her usual command of a room).
Inez is the living contradiction to her sister's austere Catholic lifestyle, floating in with her collection of heels, handbags, and perfectly tailored ensembles, while talking freely on the taboo subject of sex to Daphne's adopted daughter, Ruby (Samira Wiley). It's difficult to find the eye of the storm in Hudes' busy web of characters and story, but Ruby becomes our primary focal point , and our main tool for measuring the passage of time.
Wiley opens the play with the announcement, "I am eleven," and marks the following two decades with similar proclamations as her childlike innocence beautifully evolves into a complex adulthood that still harbors wounds from her youth. It's 1994 when Ruby appears at Daphne's bar for the first time, shaken and injured, and as the years pass, she becomes not just Daphne's legal family, but a member of Daphne's de facto family, who come to the bar looking for whiskey and good conversation.
The relationship between Daphne and Ruby is by far the most compelling thread of Hudes' story. Yet, we get only an occasional scene for them to illustrate their specific mother-daughter bond — not to mention the horrific childhood experiences that also link the two. As much as the ancillary characters help define the community that we follow for 17 years, their sheer multitude makes it difficult to invest in any one journey. Like watching a time-lapse video, we get brief visuals that hint at the characters' inner lives, but at the end we're left wanting to rewind the tape and slow things down.
Donyale Werle's 360-degree set design, however, capitalizes on this urge by forcing us to physically lean in to make the most of our bird's-eye view of the fully stocked bar below and the folks who gather there. As Kail demonstrated with In the Heights and in his new claim to fame, Hamilton, community rapport is his specialty, and he builds another convincing example at Signature Theatre. As careers progress, children grow, and relationships blossom and decay, our liquor-soaked microcosm comes into focus more clearly than any of the individuals who pass through it. Just as church is more than a collection of pews and a pulpit, Hudes, Kail, and their accomplished cast have made Daphne's Dive more than the sum of its parts.