Taken at face value, Dawn, like many of Thomas Bradshaw’s plays, is hard to digest: aside from shocking us with gratuitously long scenes of debasement, be it alcoholic or both pedophilic and incestuous, what is the play about? It must be about something: after all, religion is thrown around, as is morality. But at the end of the day, or from the beginning of Dawn, isn’t this grasping for meaning exactly what it’s all about? Bradshaw, assisted here by Jim Simpson’s exaggeratedly comic and set-less transparency, defies expectations so as to make the audience question their own ingrained assumptions.
At face value, Hampton (Gerry Bamman) is a sad clown with a violent streak. Why should anyone empathize with a man who greets his wife, Susan (Irene Walsh), in a drunken stupor, urinates in their bed, and grows violent when called on it? And yet, after watching Hampton spend five minutes hiding liquor around the bare stage (under the radiator, in a gallon jug of water, beside the audience), his desperation grows endearing. Even Bamman is exceedingly likeable, one of those upright father figures from a family sitcom, caught here after-hours. It’s all a play against type, with Bradshaw manipulating the arguments—as when his son, Steven (Drew Hildebrand), convinces him to go to AA, or when his daughter, Laura (Kate Benson), unleashes her bottled-up fury at him—so that Hampton is always likeable, so that, despite almost killing his first wife, Nancy (Laura Esterman), we can’t pass judgment on him.
As Hampton begins to atone for his sins, Bradshaw moves on to a more difficult subject, and sets about dismantling our expectations of Steven, who we are meant to like. As it turns out, however, he lusts for his 14-year-old niece, Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern): the laundry he does so charitably for Laura is really just an excuse for him to masturbate with a pair of Crissy’s panties over his face, and another down his pants. Does it lessen the blow at all to find that Crissy has already been earning cash by streaming amateur porn? Or that Steven may actually be in love with Crissy, and vice-versa?
It’s no accident that Hampton chants the same prayer at the start and end of the play—“Teach us the eternal rituals of suffering!” All the things that happen in Dawn happen in the same world, with our morality becoming quicksilver in the scorching light of Bradshaw’s drama. That Hampton refuses to turn his son in could just as easily be the thing that finally reunites his family as it is the thing that ultimately destroys it. It is not about judging these characters so much as it is about understanding them, and in that depth, knowing that we are all connected, as much in our sorrows as in our joys.