By Rebecca Romani
June 15, 2019
Don is a hard worker. He hews to his job, loves his family, and loves his little corner of Nevada.
Don is also a bemused Barney- a dinosaur who likes people, dislikes rapid change, and is lost in the post-Obama era, surrounded by 20 and 30-somethings who know the ins and outs of digital connectivity.
“I deal with this all day,” he tells his wife, Sigourney. “ I can’t keep up.”
In “What You Are,” now on stage at The Old Globe, Don is standing over a precipice and he knows it. The abyss below promises unemployment, a loss of identity, and an inability to take care of his disabled wife and college-age daughter.
Within the first 10 minutes, a meeting about digital requirements turns into a struggle between the old working class and the new mercenary tech whiz kids, in this case, Hector, a recent Latino college grad from The Bay Area. Accusations of “you people” are thrown down on both sides and Don loses it. A desk gets broken, a lawsuit is threatened. How Don deals with the stark reality of changing working class life is the subject of JC Lee’s sharply written play that suggests that all of its characters are more…and less than the sum of their parts.
At first, Don seems to be the old guard, mired in the old ways, and Hector might have a point when he accuses Don of being a racist who longs for the old days when everyone knew their place. But then, Don goes home, to his African-American wife, Sigourney, and his mixed-race daughter, Katie, and Lee cleverly turns our expectations and Hector’s assumptions on their heads.
At heart, the play is about the old and new economy, what we see and what we don’t when we don’t look closely enough. But it is also about character, who we are when our backs are up against the wall.
And just about EVERYONE in “What You Are” no matter how loving they might be, is damaged in some way.
Hector, a YouTube whiz kid and rising executive, is not quite the Latino up and comer he seeks to appear. The child of university professors, Hector is quick to judge, quick to be offended and lacking in empathy. His response to Sigourney is both nasty and dismissive, and when he slut-shames Katie to her father, he sounds as repulsive as the privileged White boys he says he despises.
Don turns out to be the son of a racist farmer, and defied his father to marry Sigourney, getting disowned in the process.
Katie, his liberal, feminist daughter, is impatient with her parents’ seeming inability to break out of working class mores, and yet has no compunction about using Hector to get what she needs to go back to school.
The only one who seems to come out relatively unscathed is Hector’s beloved dog which Don kidnaps- and the dog ends up at the vet with a broken leg.
Hector’s threatened lawsuit hangs over Don and his family like a dark cloud. Ever more isolated, Don, now unemployed, grows ever more despondent, and starts to radicalize by listening to a Rush Limbaugh sound-alike on Talk AM radio. Don will go on to do some pretty nasty, “Breaking Bad”-like things. Katie, feeling trapped by having to leave college to take care of her disabled mother, decides to take things into her own hands and blackmail Hector for some of the settlement money in a way that is more than slightly Mata Hari than Master’s student. Sigourney, Don’s companion through thick and thin for over 30 years, bakes a pie for Hector, hoping to talk some compassion into him.
“The audacity of interpretation,” she tells him.
Lee, who was commissioned by the Old Globe, comes in from Television and film as well as theatre, and has a keen eye for cultural nuance. However, as earnest and well-delivered the lines are, Lee’s characters feel like they are missing just a tiny bit of soul- their backstories, compelling though they may be, are somewhat thinly sketched in.
It is never clear how Don and Sigourney got together. And the fact that no one seems to evince more than an “oh, no, what did you do, Don?” as a seemingly mild mannered man engages in escalating acts of violence is puzzling. In addition, while Don, Sigourney, and Katie clearly speak like a deeply loving, although sometimes exasperated family, the body language feels distant, almost detached.
Despite the issues with the character structure, “What You Are” is a compelling piece, tightly directed by Patricia McGregor, whose Off Broadway experience gives her Old Globe work a rigorous grounding.
McGregor is complimented by a stellar cast. Jonathan Walker’s Don is just the right level of perplexed every man hanging on by a thread, while Omozé Idehenre is warm and sincere as Don’s wife. Jasmin Savoy Brown (Katie) and Adrian Anchondo are well matched as the young millennial trying to negotiate lives and identities in a changing world. Mike Sears, while on stage for just a short time, does a strong turn as Randy, Don’s long-time friend, who finds that world just as confusing as Don does.
Special recognition goes to Rachel Meyers for her excellent sets and ability to imbue the stage in the round with a clear sense of location.