Soul music legend Donny Hathaway, who is name-checked among a list of famous suicides in Studio Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing, takes center stage across town in Mosaic Theater’s scintillating musical drama Twisted Melodies (★★★★).
Also an immersive solo play about life, love, and suicide, Twisted Melodies, written and performed by Kelvin Roston, Jr., grants Hathaway an audience to tell his own story of battling the demons in his head. Of course, Roston is the one doing the telling, via his script, based on Hathaway’s life, that imagines the Grammy-winner’s final hours holed up in his Essex House hotel room in New York City, 1979.
The songs are Donny’s, though, many of them familiar, and Roston, accompanying himself on keys, more than does them justice. His charged, soulful performance captures the late singer’s voice, while his script gives light to the darkness that ultimately subsumed a brilliant artist.
Where the script might falter — in its general looseness of plot and occasional repetitiveness in tone — the bold direction of Derrick Sanders illuminates the meaning behind Donny’s reveries and rants. Moody, impressionistic projections surround Hathaway, while harsh pounding from the hall or the room above distracts him from his songwriting. Disembodied voices intrude on his monologue, before and after Donny showers the hotel room carpet with the litany of pills he’s been prescribed. His internal demons are made dramatically external, his paranoia made real, without the stagecraft stepping on Roston’s consistently captivating take on Hathaway’s tortured mind.
Out of that terrible storm, Hathaway still found a way to move millions with his music. He talks about needing to grasp the tumultuous energy inside him and twist it into melodies. And he makes sense. Roston and Sanders make their version of sense of the unfathomable: that this loving father, and vital musician, who topped the charts cooing “The Closer I Get to You” to his Howard U. chum Roberta Flack, couldn’t find one brilliant thing to make him want to go on living with his demons. Although, what he called demons, his doctors called schizophrenia. Roston offers a profound and truthful look at a man who simply can’t control the disruptive energy coursing through him.
Hathaway’s final act of letting go — beautifully realized through Sanders’ directorial vision, Courtney O’Neill’s remarkable set, and great lighting and projections by Alan C. Edwards and Mike Tutaj, respectively — seems no less tragic, even if by then, we think we understand him. Yet, Twisted Melodies revels in the songs he left behind, full of the yearning and romance and joy that must have certainly served as a lifeline for someone in need.
Twisted Melodies runs through July 21 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $20 to $65. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.