- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

What a treat it is to have actress Nancy Robinette all to ourselves this summer. And it is a double-dip pleasure to have her performing in the beguiling one-woman show “Donna Q,” loosely based on “Don Quixote” and written by Paulette Laufer.

The play centers on “the possible dream” of Wisconsin denizen Donna Q (Miss Robinette) to take a frigid dip into Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day as part of the annual Polar Bear Plunge. As the show opens, it is the big day, and Donna stands in full foul-weather regalia amid the stark beauty of the crackling ice recounting the months of preparation and transformation it took to get to this point. (Tony Cisek’s evocative set looks like either an iceberg or a pristine snow bridge stretching to the sky, depending on your point of view.)

Donna’s dream is like Don Quixote’s, possessed of the trembling magic to reshape every life it touches.

Unlike Cervantes’ hero, however, Donna is not a grizzled pretend-noble tilting at windmills, but a comfy-bodied, middle-aged woman from the Midwest who has had the same clerical job for more than 20 years.

That is, until her new boss decides to downsize, and for the first time in decades, Donna tastes the freedom and fear that comes with unemployment.

“Suddenly, my feet feel like big pieces of driftwood,” she says, in one of the play’s frequent lyrical moments. Instead of railing at the injustice of it all, Donna reinvents herself as an adventurer and visionary.

Her mad quest not only shakes her staid foundations, but alters the lives of her brother Hank, struggling to save the family sausage business (this is Sheboygan, after all); her niece, Krista, trying to become a totally new person in Chicago (changing her name to Plum is just the beginning); and Billy, the shy water-delivery man with the soul of a poet.

Miss Robinette plays these characters and more with clarity and affection, giving each one a distinguishing quirk or mannerism that is like a master painter’s bold brush stroke. For Hank, she hunkers down and affects a sidelong squint — and in that single gesture we can see the entire relationship between the flighty, head-in-the-clouds Donna and her pragmatic, fiercely protective older brother.

In other protean moves, Miss Robinette flutters her hand atop her head to give Krista a fluff of hair, perfect for the emerging baby chick that she is.

Billy, Donna’s personal Sancho Panza, walks with his head first, like a turtle poking out of a shell.

To play a comically affected food columnist, Miss Robinette goes into full-florid mode, waggling her fingers as if they were a particularly savory morsel of squid and sniffing the air with the robust inhalations of a born gourmand.

As fetching as these characters are, the primary radiance belongs to Donna Q alone. She has that hearty, wide-legged stance of a Midwesterner, but her thoughts are delicate and pure. In that stumbling, bull-in-a-china-shop way of hers, Miss Robinette’s Donna creates states of grace in her wake, whether patching up things between her brother and her niece, helping Billy find his true, passionate self, or gamely forging ahead when her e-ticket takes her to Madrid instead of Montreal.

The lasting thing about the character of Donna Q is that she trusts: in the process, in the unknown, in the intrinsic goodness of others.

Yet there is nothing Pollyannaish or new age treacly about Miss Laufer’s creation. Armed with a creme brulee blowtorch instead of Quixote’s lance, Donna Q meets life head-on and with blunt courage.

One wishes the play were as strong as the title character and the actress. “Donna Q” loses focus in the middle and becomes fuzzy with the various crises of the peripheral characters. For a while, it becomes outlandish and self-consciously wacky until Miss Robinette regains control of the piece near the end.

She is once again alone, her family and friends off to their happy fates. As Donna Q contemplates the cold, triumphant day gathering around her, you are moved by the blind faith and offbeat bravery of this woman.

When she plunges into Lake Michigan with a Tarzan yell, she takes us with her — into the icy waters, into the shock and the knowing.

***

WHAT: “Donna Q” by Paulette Laufer

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 27.

TICKETS: $20 to $32

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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