“Dorothy’s Dictionary,” A Play About Hope and Connection

“Zan doesn’t want to read to Dorothy, and she’s not too sure she wants him to!  But his community service assignment is not optional.  And book by book, the two of them begin to form an unexpected friendship… just when they need it most.”

“The last 5 or 6 – 8 years have been pretty damn tough, so it’s not a shock that past season of most theater companies have been so heavy. But now, after all this time, we want to leave people hopeful with the idea of how maybe, we can still save one another.” So says the artistic director, Matt Stabile, of Theatre Lab, who also happens to be directing the world premiere of Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis.

I had the chance to sit down with the playwright and cast to talk about this new play, what it means, what it’s about, and why now. For those that don’t know, which might be most, this is a two hander of a play – which means it is made up of a cast of 2, no more, no less. A two hander about an angry high school kid, Zan(Elijah Moseley), who is a bit lost after a violent mistake and is put together with an ailing librarian, Dorothy(Karen Stephens), to read to her as a form of community service and the unexpected friendship that comes from it.

It’s a simple premise, and when it comes to these kind of 2 person plays, sometimes simple is best, but there is something about this play that draws you in, that gives you a flicker of hope as you start to go down memory lane with Zan and how a single mistake, can lead you down a path that will change your life for the better when given the chance to grow.

As E.M. Lewis put it, she was just and still is a rural Oregon farm girl, who loved stories as a kid, she was always reading reading reading. By the 4th grade she was writing poems and telling her own stories. The world around her felt small, nothing but farmland and 4th generation rural Oregon life, both parents were teacher so of course she thought to herself, “Maybe I’ll be a nurse, or a teacher” –

“I didn’t know you could actually be a writer.”

“By the time I went to college, someone told me to do what I love, or you’ll never be any good at it.”

And that’s what she did, she started writing stories, the way she wanted to, the way she had loved the stories of others she had hoped to give someone else the same gift of reading that she had growing up – “That’s where my heart is, stories and the love of stories.” But at this point she still hadn’t touched the realm of theatre. In fact, that didn’t come till later –

“It wasn’t until grad school that I truly found theatre. Paul Zindel came to our program to speak, and he talked about plays and theatre, and then brought out these two Indonesian puppets, and showed us how a play works by using the puppets as a visual example. I could, I could pictures the characters in real time, talking and conversing, the dialogue coming and bringing them to life, and thought – that’s what I want to do – and that was it.”

Her love of stories and reading shines through this play in particular, a story that she has decided to share with the world in an attempt “navigate the divide between us all” that as been created over the last few years.  it is filled with, as she put it, her geeky love for words, books, libraries, stories that saved her, and stories and places that helped her see the world is much bigger than the one she knew.

In speaking with Matt and the cast on why this play and how do they handle a memory play, the main thing that came through was excitement.

This play was written just before the pandemic took over the world, so it has only had the chance to exist in the virtual world of development, and after a zoom reading with Palm Beach Dramaworks, directed by Matt Stabile, this play became a no brainer for the artistic director and this current Theatre Lab season.   

Matt Stabile chose this play not only because it brings hope, but because it spoke to him as a teacher. It touches on the idea that if you give kids a chance and have great expectations for them, more often than not, they will meet them, they just need someone to believe can do more than what people tell them.

“There are too many plays about how awful the world is, this is the complete opposite of that.”

 When speaking to the cast, they only had praise for this particular process and the play itself.

Karen Stephens, a South Florida Theatre staple, felt a connection to the character of Dorothy and the humanity of this relationship between mentor and student. She talked about what it is that we as people try to leave behind as a legacy, and how Zan is Dorothy’s. The time they spend together creates a whole new world for the two of them, and despite their differences, these two people are able to find common ground that changes their lives for the better.

Elijah Moseley, a recent FAU graduate, knows the character of Zan because he could remember how being a teenage felt, the anger, frustration, and confusion. Along with that connection, in doing research for this production (an aspect of theatre that Elijah loves), he apparently read all the books that are referenced in the play – a task that most would find daunting but for him it just heightened the experience and journey.

The journey of this story might have been a long one considering when it started, but because of that delay, we get the chance to see it now, with this cast, and this production.

This play was written with love, having read it beforehand myself I can tell you this from having experienced it on the page, and Matt Stabile made sure to carry that over into the process, making sure that the process was a collaborative one, “I believe that the best ideas can sometimes come not from the director, but from the people living the characters”. The actors felt heard and seen every step of the way and even the playwright was open to open communication when it came to the play, ready to answer any questions, reconsider any lines, and discuss any roadblocks.

 A few things to know about this play as we come to the end of this preview into the world and production around it; Dorothy’s Dictionary exists as a memory play – something that is explored not only on the page but that Matt Stabile has decided to play with on the stage and I can’t wait to see what that looks like, it is a play about hope and how one person can alter the course of the rest of your life, and you should get your tickets today before it sells out.

South Florida Theatre is in the middle of changing, just like the rest of the theatre world. While some of it may be reactive and temporary, the people at Theatre Lab have hope that it isn’t, that the divide that once fractured the community will never exist again.

If you have the chance, don’t miss out on this play, running from November 17th to December 11th , so get your tickets here. Hope to see you there!

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