In an average game of word association, “doll” usually conjures up one of two things: (a) miniature human replicas that cry, soil themselves, or wear clothes befitting them for careers as flight attendants, astronauts, and vets; or (b) Chucky.
In Holly Down in Heaven, a world premiere by Kara Lee Corthron currently playing at Round House Silver Spring, the dolls are an odd, almost impossibly creepy fusion of the two. Holly (Maya Jackson) is a 15-year-old schoolgirl who’s born-again after a week-long stint at bible camp (a little too late, since she’s already pregnant). As a self-imposed penance, she confines herself to the basement with her collection of more than 200 dolls. And when Holly’s alone, the dolls—which range from a Carol Channing-a-like ventriloquist’s dummy to a model of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—speak to her, and they’re a little more loquacious (and menacing) than the Baby Small Talks of yesteryear.
Not only is Holly a pregnant teenager with an inflated sense of moral piety, but she’s also extraordinarily gifted, making her almost insufferable. Her cheery, cajoling father (KenYatta Rogers), not knowing what to do with the bratty, sanctimonious hermit in his basement, hires a tutor (Dawn Thomas), whom Holly introduces to her doll collection: the “ethnics,” the priceless collectibles in their original packaging, and her personal favorites, the “Asians.”
Corthron’s offbeat story gets quirkier when the dolls come to life. Puppeteers Vanessa Strickland (who steals the show when she brings Carol Channing to life as a trash-talking therapist), Luke Cieslewiscz, and KyoSin animate them much as most children do—by picking them up and shaking them around—but the effect is alarmingly successful. In one scene, Holly’s favorite geisha doll implores her to get an abortion; in another, Kofi Annan hosts a conference for the dolls to discuss the impending threat of the birth of Holly’s baby. They might be Holly’s longtime companions, but these dolls are really only out for themselves.
Forum Theatre’s artistic director, Michael Dove, does an excellent job creating Holly’s microcosm of the real world—the set by Steven T. Royal, spread out under a giant staircase, feels nicely cloying, and Holly’s twin bed with princess-like sheets helps underline her youth. Creepy as they might be, the dolls are the most creative part of the show, subverting stereotypes and tapping into our latent childhood fears at the same time. The performers—from Jackson as the smug, bossy Holly (“I’m God’s favorite,” she tells her tutor) to Parker Drown as Holly’s endearingly reprobate ex-boyfriend—are generally strong, enhancing the oddball humor of the production.
The play, however, is overlong at two-plus hours and sometimes feels lacking in action. Since the audience, like Holly, is effectively confined to a basement, the contrast between Holly’s flesh-and-blood dilemma and her manufactured doll drama isn’t sufficiently emphasized. As audience members, Holly’s real issues (the loss of her mother, her unwanted pregnancy and what to do with it) are more compelling than the power struggles her tiny militia hash out day after day, and although tutor Mia details a litany of complaints about love and modern life, they’re hinted at rather than explored.
Nevertheless, Holly is an engaging contemporary valentine to childhood companions, however brutal, messed up, and borderline schizophrenic those companions may be.
Holly Down in Heaven plays at Round House Silver Spring through October 20. Running time is two hours and ten minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($25) are available via Forum’s website.