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A Sunny Comedy About Death and Car Chases Colman Domingo's "Wild With Happy" finds its voice

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

If you think the middle of Wild With Happy, Colman Domingo's new play at the Public, feels like a caper movie, then you're not far off. "In the first incarnation, he wanted that car ride to be a film," says director Robert O'Hara. "He wanted there to be a screen descending, and we would film those scenes and flip back and forth between these two cars."

That section of the play certainly has madcap energy: After his mother dies, a struggling actor named Gil (Domingo) goes back home to plan her funeral, but in a moment of panic about the cost (and his own emotional stability), he decides to have her cremated. Then he ends up in a car with his best friend, who decides they need to drive the ashes all the way to Disneyworld, where mama had one of her happiest days. Eventually, Gil's feisty Aunt Glo (Sharon Washington) figures out where they're headed, and she speeds off after them, determined to get her sister back home for a proper memorial.

As the play developed---beginning with a residency at the Sundance Institute Theatre Laboratory---the script always referred to the chase scene as a literal movie. But when it was time for the Public's world premiere, which officially opens tomorrow, it was obvious that the budget couldn't handle a full-blown film.

"I knew that was going to be happening, and in the back of Colman's mind, I think he sort of knew," says O'Hara. "But I always encouraged Colman to write big, to go for broke, so that no matter what you take away, there's enough in there to make sure the energy and the spirit of that scene is still there.

"If he had not written in all his drafts up until that moment that he wanted it to be a movie---he wanted [Aunt Glo's] scarf to be flying and all of that---the energy of that scene wouldn't have filtered through to what we have on stage." (The production gets that spirit across with clever projections and a witty set design that lets coffins transform into getaway cars.)

That's a crucial element of developing a new play. When a script is still finding itself, everyone needs to say "yes" to wild ideas. Even if they seem impractical, they might reveal valuable things about the play.

It matters, for instance, that Wild With Happy has the spirit of a screwball caper, even though it's about death. "It's a play about life through death," O'Hara says. "It's about how we deal with death and how crazy the world becomes for the person who is actually dealing with death. Because you begin to see the world differently."

But how do you nurture that idea in the rehearsal room? How do you honor a playwright's impulses while you're also trying to get a show on its feet?

For Wild With Happy, it helped that many of the collaborators were already friends before they arrived at Sundance. "It was really a lot of fun, and there was a trust that led to a lot of open conversation in the room," O'Hara says.

Plus, O'Hara is a playwright himself. His plays like Bootycandy and Insurrection: Holding History have been produced around the country, so he knows how a writer feels in the development process.

Since Domingo is both writing and starring in Wild With Happy, O'Hara occasionally had to make sure the writer took precedence.  He says, "I understood that Colman was wearing two hats---when I had to call a break in rehearsal just so the playwright could enter the room and actually address us or fix a scene or work on a scene. We had to allow ourselves to stop."

He continues, "I know there are times in a room when the director wants a rewrite right there. 'This doesn't work. Could you fix it?' And you're supposed to come up on a moment's notice with a new line or a way to understand something. And it just doesn't work that way. So we'd just stop rehearsal and let Colman go home and be the playwright. I'm always one for allowing the playwright to have as much room as possible to breathe. It only helps the play."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus