Irony is always tricky, but director Jim Simpson has set himself a nearly impossible task in trying to distance us from Thomas Bradshaw’s Dawn. The play centers on Hampton, a businessman who emerges from an alcoholic stupor just in time to cope with a case of incestuous pedophilia among his deeply dysfunctional spawn. Bradshaw intelligently probes the spiritual conversion accompanying Hampton’s turn to temperance and stares unblinkingly at the emotional complexity of incest—serious stuff.
Bradshaw concedes, in an author’s note, that there is “irony” in the play, but he asks that it be “underplayed.” Instead, Simpson adds cartoonish sound effects and digital supertitles to alienate us from the script—to encourage us, for instance, to snicker at the obsessive rituals of a desperate alcoholic hiding his booze.
Gerry Bamman brings an affecting nakedness to the character of this alcoholic, and Jenny Seastone Stern is startlingly earnest as his granddaughter. But the play’s distraught women, reverting constantly to a caricatured stage-holler, seem to belong to an altogether less sincere play.
A more thoroughly ironic production might have made breakthrough moments of earnestness more poignant. Alternatively, complete sincerity might have made for a powerful, if almost unwatchably painful night in the theater. Bradshaw wrote the latter; Simpson wanted the former. The result is a muddle.