The darkness that hung over the stage at Boise Contemporary Theater lifted as quickly as it descended, revealing Dano Ritchie (Dwayne Blackaller) standing in front of a shark tank about to deliver a spiel about surviving shark attacks. Dano had two main points: Sharks are sneaky--just because you can't see them doesn't mean you're not in danger--and the only way to be out of danger is to reach the shore.
Dano's points about sharks underline important themes in BCT's production of Warren (or) Those People, which opened Feb. 1. The predator's shadow stalks this seemingly conventional play about an autistic man caring for a dying, bigoted woman, all the way to a bitter end that will leave audiences speechless.
After losing his job at the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit, Mich., 40-something Dano moves back in with his widower father in the nearby city of Warren and finds a job as a caregiver for 90-something Rose MacBeth Ericson (Peggy Cosgrave). Over time, Dano learns about the social cues he'll need to successfully interview for his next job while Rose, who learns she is dying of cancer, begins to unburden herself of her latent racism and homophobia.
Blackaller's Dano started strong but wavered as Warren progressed. The character's loud, monotonous voice and tics during the play's first half successfully invoked his autism, but the act began to slip in the second half, with Dano's idiosyncrasies sometimes feeling more like punchlines than involuntary mannerisms. Cosgrave delivered a more nuanced and sustained performance as Rose, who rotted convincingly onstage as she traded dazzling brooches and a gray shock of hair for muumuus of decreasing decency.
As Dano and Rose's relationship blooms, however, indications abound that this play won't end with its two characters going their separate ways. In scenes that suggest Rose is coming to terms with her mortality while pushing Dano toward employment and self-sufficiency, she also seems to be drawing Dano closer to her. As Dano repairs and refurbishes Rose's material possessions (many of which she eventually gifts to him), she tells him stories about her life. Often they're about her petty malevolences and alienation from her family; but, in one case, she tells him about the uncanny way she coaxed veterans in a VA psychiatric hospital to behave.
Rose performs a similar feat on Dano and by the end of the play, the two are able to cuddle--Dano hates to be touched--and look each other in the eye. Her aptitude for winning trust proves to be prodigious. Warren is a play about human connection, love and overcoming one's self. It's also about sharks--but, unlike a big-screen shark attack, there's no fin above the water to warn audiences what's coming.