The play chronicles her life growing up in a library … yes, “in.” Washington’s childhood was spent in the caretaker’s apartment attached to the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She lived there with her father — the custodian whose duties included, every day, stoking the coal furnace (a.k.a. “feeding the dragon”) — her loving if somewhat astringent mother and her doting grandma.
Washington is an actress of extensive and impressive stage and screen credits, and her performance in Feeding the Dragon is a mesmerizing example of how immediately a superb actor can form a riveting bond with an audience. Director Maria Mileaf molds and shapes that performance forcefully but imperceptibly; the best direction is the kind the audience never sees.
Tony Ferrieri’s set, all polished wood and well-worn books, is as sumptuous as Washington’s performance and I want to make an especial mention of Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting design; she, along with Ferrieri, have created five upstage light panels which both subtlety and brilliantly reinforce the play’s emotional beats.
Feeding the Dragon is Washington’s debut as a playwright and she does a great job conjuring well-defined characters in elegantly simple language; coupled with her spot-on portrayal of them, this work is a gallery exhibition of some of the fascinating people she’s met in her life.
But just so you know: Nothing really happens in Feeding the Dragon. This isn’t a show about plot or incident, and if you don’t realize that, you can waste a lot of time waiting for the play to “begin.” It never does, nor do I think that was Washington’s aim. It’s more a meditation on a particular time in her life and some of the people involved … and you really don’t want to be anywhere else.