Dora’s Story: a cautionary coming-of-age

Theatre Vertigo's 'The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents' offers powerful acting, lingering questions

“Dunno,” blurts Dora, the intellectually disabled central character in Lukas Barfüs’s The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents (onstage through Feb. 14 at Theatre Vertigo). Not just once, but throughout the show, Dora says “Dunno” to fend off serious questions about her physical, emotional, and sexual needs. The question she’s really confronting, according to director Bobby Bermea, is one of “personhood,” the Herculean task of creating her identity from scratch.

Shawna Nordman and Nathan Dunkin in "Neuroses." Photo: Gary Norman

Shawna Nordman and Nathan Dunkin in “Neuroses.” Photo: Gary Norman

When we first meet Dora, we learn that she’s spent much of her young life on heavy meds that were intended to manage her disability, but have also blunted her personality. When her mother decides to take her off the drugs, Dora’s mental awareness sharpens only a little … but her sexual urges are thrown into overdrive. We watch her succeed at seduction, but struggle painfully with comprehension and judgment.

My friends who attended Neuroses with me picked up Dora’s “Dunno” for the whole next week. “Dunno,” they’d deadpan about no-win situations at work, or political stumpers in the news. It may be the takeaway thesis of the show, which washes its hands of any preaching or prescription and leaves its audience, like Dora, at a loss. By no means a feel-good show, it’s certainly a feel-something one. Doleful, squicky, thought-provoking, poignant and pathetic, it’s a big bite of forbidden fruit asquirm with worms. It gets you in the gut.

One wonders how much of the playwright’s intention has been lost in Neil Blackadder’s translation. To wit, the very title. “Sexual?” It is. But “Neuroses?” Not really. It would be more accurate to call Dora’s parents’ stance “reasonable concern.” “Our?” Again, no. Dora’s condition is unique, not universally shared; likewise, her parents are uniquely adapted to her special needs, not average.  And “Parents?” Sure, they’re supporting characters, but this is undeniably Dora’s story.

If it were a ’70’s movie, this play might actually be called Dora’s Story, with a shimmering, melancholy piano piece a la Nadia’s Theme to score it. It belongs among other tales of troubled outsiders and conflicted caretakers—Nell and Mask and The Miracle Worker, Dancer in the Dark and Sybil and My Left FootFlowers for Algernon and Of Mice and Men and even Frankenstein. And if it were a movie, Vertigo company member Shawna Nordman might get the Oscar for a committed performance of a difficult condition. Her gaze seems bleary, her voice is gutteral, her movements are clumsily earnest. Wandering doelike through her scenes, Nordman embodies an awkward, guileless innocent in a cruddy, complicated world.

Lisamarie Harrison plays Dora’s poised, powerful mother, who grows increasingly cold over her daughter’s impossible behavior and secretly seeks sexual stress-release with Dora’s very cooperative dad (Gary Powell). R. David Wyllie plays Dora’s socially awkward, possessive boss at a train station produce stand, who convinces her that kissing him is one of her job requirements. His mother, meanwhile (played by Jane Bement Geesman), sees Dora as an example of her own streetwise promiscuity, erroneously believing that Dora can look out for herself and take responsibility for her sexual choices. Dora’s doctor (Mario Calcagno) also seems to relish the task of teaching young Dora about her world of options—initially, anyway; but as it gradually dawns on him how incapable she is of setting her own boundaries, he frets for her well-being.

These characters orbit Dora, pairing off with her, then huddling with each other to discuss their concerns, while Dora, isolated, struggles with her emotions. Between scenes, characters bustle across the stage with a sense of individual purpose, Viewpoints-style, giving the setting (which is unavoidably sparse in the tiny shoebox theater) a sense of open ends and cosmopolitan transience.

Shawna Nordman as Nora. Photo: Gary Norman

Shawna Nordman as Dora. Photo: Gary Norman

The main cause for everyone’s concern is Dora’s sexual tryst with a “fine gentleman,” an unscrupulous traveling salesman (played by Nathan Dunkin) who considers himself lucky to find a willing sex partner as naïve as she is young and pretty. His stance toward Dora ranges from “alpha” to downright “dom” as he bosses her around and tousles her like a rag doll in scenes that are intentionally uncomfortable and explicit.

Not realizing just how pliant she is already, he gives her ideas he’ll later regret, like telling her to “never” wash, or suggesting she think of him as her boyfriend. The childlike woman takes his advice to extremes, and he soon finds himself with an unkempt, addled, would-be ward where he thought he had an exciting lover.

Obviously, part of the discomfort of watching Neuroses comes from seeing the particularly impressionable Dora be exploited. But the broader implications about personhood and gender relations are more insidious and haunting.

For instance, be honest: do you notice yourself changing how you talk, move, or even what you say, to mirror those you’re hanging around with? Most of us do it to an extent, and most of us did it even more when we were first “finding ourselves.” In Dora, this tendency is magnified. We watch her mimic the brusque, bawdy old shopkeeper, shuffling and hunching. We hear her parrot her mother’s frustrated exclamations, complete with their original inflection. Something we’ve all done, when taken to an extreme, feels creepy and bizarre, forcing us to admit that maybe it was all along…

Similarly: have you ever heard the common assertion that “dumb girls/crazy girls/girls with daddy issues are hot?” Or the casual correlation of virginity with value? Well, Dora should be a dream woman. She fulfills a whole spectrum of her man’s fantasies, from virgin to whore … then tests his actual interest. He says he wants a willing, dirty girl? She stops washing completely, and sleeps with him despite having a life-threatening infection. He changes his mind and wants a pure, maternal girl? Well, guess what? He’s the only man she’s ever been with, and she’s ready to introduce him to her parents and conceive a baby with him, like, yesterday! Quel surprise, the man can’t handle how above-and-beyond Dora goes. He wanted her to meet his standards exactly and stop, rather than ride his stated desires all the way to their inevitable destination, Crazy Town. If masculinity advances and femininity succumbs, how much of either is reasonable before one is a cudgel and the other a puddle?





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