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Feeding the Dragon

.Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.— Epigraph to Feeding the Dragon (this is Neil Gaiman's paraphrase of a G.K. Chesterton quotation).
Sharon Washington (Photo by James Leynse)
No one-person play this season has offered a more arresting opening sequence than Sharon Washington's autobiographical Feeding the Dragon.

Washington, who performs her play under Maria Mileaf's sure-handed direction, grabs our attention immediately: "From 1969 until 1973 my family lived . . . at 444 Amsterdam Avenue in an apartment on the top floor inside the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library."

For a book lover, it's easy to imagine all kinds of magic "after hours" in a library — and, especially, behind the imposing fa├žade of that beautiful Renaissance Revival building on Amsterdam between West 81st and 82nd Street. At the outset, Washington's reminiscences hold the promise of being a latter-day fairy tale — something akin to A Wrinkle in Time or The Chronicles of Narnia.

For a time, Feeding the Dragon exudes the whimsical charm of fantasy fiction for young readers. But most of this family story is less than fantastical; and, while much of it is charming and a good deal is touching, the piece overall is diffuse and, at 90 minutes, slightly overlong (though forgivably so).

Once upon a time, it seems, several branches of the New York Public Library had apartments on premises for custodians and their families. These apartments made it possible for custodians to live in neighborhoods otherwise beyond their means. The most pressing reason, though, was the need to have someone always on hand. Those grand old buildings were heated with coal furnaces that needed to be monitored around the clock. The titular dragon of Washington's story is such a furnace.

Feeding the Dragon concerns Sharon, the little girl who lives at the library; her father George (yes, George Washington); her mother Connie; Connie's mother "Gramma Ma"; and Brownie, the family dog. The beginning of the script is like a story book for children in the lower grades — it's nostalgic, funny, and almost conflict free. Just a "typical American family living in a not-so-typical place" is the playwright's summation of her characters.

As the story unfolds, we realize how tongue-in-cheek that summation is; and how profoundly economic hardship, limited education and, most of all, society's racism have determined this family's destiny.

Sharon is a brainy, small-fry heroine not unlike Hayley Mills in her movies of the 1960s. The comedic sections of Feeding the Dragon have a nostalgic flavor reminiscent of novels such as Cheaper by the Dozen and films like Meet Me in Saint Louis.

In one of the most diverting sequences, Brownie gets loose in the library and the Washingtons give chase.. "We all had to scramble down to different floors in the library to try to figure out where [Brownie] was," says the playwright. "My mother went down to the Children's Library on the third floor; I took the Reference Section on the second floor; and Daddy searched the Main Floor and the basement. She goes on to describe how they stood on the landings waving doggie biscuits, whistling and calling Brownie, BROWNIE!! Here Girl! C'mere girl!"

As narrator, Washington gives the material irreproachable sweetness. The affectionate dignity of her performance safeguards the text from turning cute or precious. And she's adept at channeling characters (including her younger self).

Sharon's mother is realistic, frugal, and a strict disciplinarian. Her grandmother supplies the warmth that the mother lacks. The most interesting character is George, the father Sharon adores. He's a man with no aversion to hard work..

"I've had every kind of job," says George, " done a little bit of everything. So hard work — that ain't nothing new to me. . . . but that doggone furnace down there . . . that makes this here library job one of the toughest I've ever had. You gotta put an even layer of fresh coal on top of them hot embers every day — sometimes two, three times a day in the winter. Keep her stoked. Keep her at a steady slow burn. Twenty-four seven. And you got ta clean out them ashes. What I always say?"

Washington is so skilled in the technique of acting monodrama that we have no difficulty imagining two voices when young Sharon joins her father in his mantra: "Don't let that furnace go out!"

The furnace, George reminds his daughter, is "the last of its kind." At a moment when the other branch libraries are being modernized and outfitted with less demanding systems of temperature control, George is in charge of the one remaining coal furnace.

Eventually we learn, along with Sharon, that George is a recovering alcoholic who's prone to slips. The play, which is touching throughout, reaches a zenith of heartbreak when Sharon loses her illusions about her father. Yet there's a positive aspect to Sharon's disillusionment: it appears to galvanize her determination to follow her mother's urging and make the most of the opportunities available to her.

Primary Stages has mounted Washington's play with first class production values. The handsome, book-filled set, designed by Tony Ferrieri and lighted by Ann G. Wrightson, evokes effectively the atmosphere of the St. Agnes library and the card-catalogue era during which the Washington family lived there. But what makes this presentation noteworthy is the verisimilitude of the playwright's measured but theatrical interpretation of her own writing.

In the hands of Washington the actress, the heroine of Feeding the Dragon is excellent company, both as a child and as an adult narrator. For the most part, Washington the playwright creates an effective mix of comedy and drama (with a little bit of tragedy). Only the hardest of audience hearts would be unstirred by her invocation of the "flipside" of the "fairy tale" aspects of her memories: "In the space upstairs — my family's laughter. On the roof — our footprints. And in the basement . . . there were Dragons fed. And fought."

True, the playwright never fully transforms that practical, mechanical beast in the library cellar into an effective symbol of the demons raging beneath her father's breast and in society's racist heart. That's a missed opportunity, but it's certainly not a fatal flaw. .

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. Feeding the Dragon
Written and performed by Sharon Washington
Directed by Maria Mileaf
Cast: Sharon Washington
Scenic Design by Tony Ferrieri
Costume Design by Toni-Leslie Jones Lighting Design by Ann G. Wrightson
Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones
Production Stage Manager: Will Duty
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
From 3/21/18; Opened 4/3/18; Closing 4/27/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 3/28/18 press preview.

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