Mike Kindle’s ambitious stage biopic spans 35 years in the life of Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of President Barack Obama, who by the president's own account was the predominant influence in his childhood and the fount of his values. Kindle’s one-person play is constructed as a series of conversations between Dunham — played with skill and finesse by veteran performer Ann Noble — and various people in her life, including her two spouses, her mother, her children and friends and work associates. It’s a challenging format that relies on the audience’s ability to conceptualize these people’s reactions and responses, but Noble’s performance compensates for whatever attenuation of the drama that setup generates.
Dunham spent much of her adult life in Hawaii and Indonesia, and designer Robert Selander’s set appropriately conjures a tropical backdrop for the transformation of this intelligent idealist from a wide-eyed young girl to a seasoned woman. The play begins in near darkness, with Noble as the 18-year-old Dunham naked on a pallet, whispering sweet words to her lover, Barack Obama Sr. By the next sequence he has vanished, and Dunham is wheeling a baby carriage and ruminating on the complications and circumscriptions of life as a young mother.
One of the clearest dramatic transitions takes place after Dunham has married her second husband and is teaching English in Indonesia. Admitted to a ruling circle, she’s become privy to corruption among the rich and powerful, and finds herself going through cocktail-party maneuvers with people she neither likes nor respects.
Director Mark Bringelson helps compensate for the dense text by staging each monologue with cogent flair in a separate area of the stage. In this he’s aided by Matt Richter’s sometimes umbral lighting and designer Chris Moscatiello’s sound.
But ultimately it‘s Noble who carries the play. Her portrayal builds not on grand emotional displays but calibrated detail as she re-enacts events, ordinary and otherwise, in the life of someone who contributed to our country's shifting tides.
GO! Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood; through July 26. (323) 860-7300, lalgbtcenter.org/theatre
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Correction: The original version of this review had the wrong spelling of Dunham's last name. We regret the error.
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