“This wasn’t what we were expecting from a Lynn Nottage play,” one couple said – with more surprise than unhappiness – at a recent intermission of the Signature Theatre production of Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine. Indeed, theatergoers versed in Nottage’s more famed and extremely dramatic work, such as Intimate Apparel, Ruined or Sweat, may well be caught off guard by the primarily comic tone of this 2004 play, now being given a sprightly production under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction.
As we soon learn, despite her initially fabulous surroundings, Undine (the fantastic Cherise Boothe) is no ordinary well-dressed, somewhat nasty Manhattan publicist. She’s a Brooklyn-born woman who has changed not just her name (from Sharona) but her entire life, only to see the house of cards she carefully constructed instantly collapse when her husband absconds with their life savings.
Since she’s now broke, 37 years old, pregnant and living again with her working-classing family – the same people who she claimed died in a fire 15 years ago to mask her shame – the larger, and more dramatic, question is how can she rise from the ashes she fabricated? And, as tenacious as she is, does she even want to?
Before Nottage gives us – and Undine – the answer to that query, she takes her (and us) down an urban rabbit hole. Not only must Undine return to her childhood home in the projects, populated by her lottery-loving parents, poetry-loving brother Flow and seemingly sweet grandmother, she eventually ends up (briefly) in jail, then in a drug counseling program and ultimately dealing with the bureaucracy of social services just to see an obstetrician. (Adam Rigg has cleverly designed the ever-evolving sets.)
Above all, though, Undine is forced to wrestle with two even bigger obstacles: her mixed feelings about having the baby and allowing herself to love again. Boothe’s stunningly multi-layered performance, in which she exposes Undine’s toughness and fear in equal measure, helps us to root for what could come off, in other hands, as a very unsympathetic character.
Boothe may be firmly in the center ring of this modern-day circus, but the people on the sides are also pretty great. Mayaa Boateng, Marcus Callender, J. Bernard Calloway, Dashiell Eaves, Ian Lassiter, Nikiya Mathis and Heather Alicia Simms expertly weave in and out of a wide variety of characters, smartly individualizing each and every one. They’re all aided by Montana Levi Blanco’s spot-on costume design, which seemingly proves invaluable to each performer in making their transformations.
One could possibly accuse Nottage of lecturing here, but I don’t really see Fabulation as either a morality play or a cautionary tale. It is essentially a fable with an ever-timely message: that we should all remember and realize what is truly valuable in life, and never stop trying to become one’s best self.