The titular bar in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ compassionate drama Daphne’s Dive (★★★☆☆) is exactly the sort of friendly, neighborhood spot where everybody might know your name.
In fact, if you’re one of Daphne’s regulars, everybody might also know your problems, and a few of your secrets, too. In the nearly 20 years that passes in the lives of owner/manager Daphne (a radiant Rayanne Gonzales) and the close-knit crew at her north Philly bar, they bond like familia over successes and failures, dreams, gossip, laughs, and Latino culture.
Hudes explored similar themes of found family within a Latino community in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Water by the Spoonful, and as Tony-nominated book writer of In the Heights. True to that form, this ensemble portrait of community is also anchored by a blood-relative bond, in this case, between sisters Daphne and Inez (Yesenia Iglesias).
The pair moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia as youngsters, and have pursued divergent paths towards making a home for themselves in this tough city so far from the island and traditions they still recall fondly.
While Inez and her man Acosta (James Whalen) strive for financial and political gains to solidify their status, Daphne pours her heart, soul, and elbow grease into maintaining her bar, and, in turn, nurturing the odd assortment of characters who call the place their home away from home.
Director Paige Hernandez privileges the audience with a closeup view of the action inside the bar, which practically fills Signature’s intimate ARK Theatre. Stretched like a panoramic photo across our line of vision, scenic designer Meghan Raham’s homey, wood-paneled set convinces as an inviting dive to share a round with friends, or momentarily escape one’s troubles.
As boss of the bar, Gonzales inhabits the space and her character with the robust kindness of a welcoming host and caring neighbor. Her Daphne absolutely is a person to have in your corner if life takes a turn for the worse, or to toast with when everything’s coming up roses. And Gonzales consistently conveys the genuine intent behind Daphne’s most radical gesture of kindness, taking in 11-year old Ruby (Jyline Carranza), an undocumented immigrant and abuse survivor.
Portraying Ruby at various ages, from 11 to 29, Carranza conquers the challenge of progressing Daphne’s ward from shy young girl to moody, demonstrative adult. The performance at times lacks nuance — for instance, a scene of drunk acting that maybe wasn’t supposed to be inebriation but something else — but the impact Ruby has in the play, and on Daphne, is felt.
Iglesias and Whalen put across Ines and Acosta’s rollercoaster couple drama with feeling, too, while Jonathan Atkinson adds a spark to his every scene playing queer, Cuban artist Pablo, a proud misfit both brimming with confidence and racked with self-doubt. Pablo dreams up ambitious art projects that he makes from materials procured while dumpster diving. Forever fashioning a more beautiful world from the best trash he can find, he’s an optimist like everyone else at Daphne’s, believing he’ll have a hand in creating change.
Hernandez and the cast forge a strong collective spirit inside Daphne’s Dive, as the years play out in successive, slice-of-life episodes that engage but generally don’t gather much driving momentum. That is, the disparate plot lines don’t appear to be leading towards or away from any particular endpoint, until the play arrives out of nowhere at a bombshell revelation and emotional climax. Carranza and, in particular, Gonzales, create an arresting moment that reflects the depth of Ruby and Daphne’s shared experience, yet still feels like ending a pleasantly meandering journey with a head-on collision.
Daphne’s Dive runs through March 20 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington. Tickets are $25 to $90. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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