Heritage vs. Money – “Dream Hou$e” at Long Wharf Explores the Dilemma

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Marianna McClellan as Tessa the TV host.

By Karen Isaacs

HGTV has a huge audience for all its various home renovation shows – from the Property Brothers franchise to the shows focused on buying, selling or flipping homes.

Playwright Eliana Pipes has used these as inspiration for the new play, Dream Hou$e now getting its world premiere at Long Wharf through Sunday, April 3.

I found much to like about this show which focuses on Latinx sisters who turn to one of these shows – called Flip It and List It —  to sell their family home. The home was built by their great grandfather after he arrived from Mexico in the late 1800s and has been passed down through the generations. The neighborhood is now trendy and home prices are sky-rocketing. With their mother’s death, the older sister Patricia is determined to sell the house and get the most money possible for it.

Thus, she has convinced (or bullied) her younger sister, Julia, into agreeing to do the show with the perky host Tessa.

Pipes combines realism with non-realistic touches as well as some surreal elements.

While you get fully invested in the relationship of the two sisters, you can’t help but see similarities in plot and theme from Alice Walker’s famous short story “Everyday Use” and multiple August Wilson plays, most notably The Piano Lesson. A central point of all of these, including Dream Hous$e is the debate about how to use and preserve heritage. Do you keep it or do you use it for the future?

In this case, Julia becomes sentimental as she returns to the home and remembers the stories – that Patricia doubts are real – about the building of the home and the generations who lived there. She sees in the home a connection to her culture and her ancestors. Yet, she had moved away and even during her mother’s last illness, had seldom returned. For Patricia, the money the house could bring would help her fulfill her somewhat extravagant fantasies of expensive cars, a country club membership and perhaps, finally feeling accepted in society. She also remembers the months of loneliness as she cared for her mother during that last illness. She resents her sister for abandoning her.

At times as Tessa manipulates and sometimes bullies each sister, you wonder if this isn’t really a Dr. Faustus story. If so, it seems that Patricia is more willing to sell her soul to the devil.

Pipes subtly plays on the cultural stereotypes. The home is tastefully furnished when the play opens – the set by Stephanie Osin Cohen is wonderful – but soon the crew of the TV show has brought in colorful pillows, wall hangings and objects that many would immediately recognize as “Mexican.”

While Tessa proclaims how wonderful the house is and the beautiful original touches it has, she is willing to demolish most of it without a qualm.

The three leads under the direction of Laurie Woolery create characters that you can relate to. Even Tessa, played by Marianna McClellan, maybe borderline (or over the line) obnoxious, but you do feel that she really wants to help these two women financially.

Renata Eastlick as Patricia begins as a controlled businesswoman (an accountant) who has succeeded in mainstream society. Yet soon, you see the cracks: The desire to start her own firm, the uncertainty that she fits in with her more affluent clients and the desire to feel accepted on all levels.

As Julia, Darilyn Castillo has a different persona; she’s a teacher and pregnant and alone – the father of the child has left her. So perhaps it’s the pregnancy hormones that have her emotional about leaving the house. It doesn’t necessarily ring true that she would so easily turn in the other direction, leaving behind even the historical documents she found in the wall.

It isn’t a perfect play and some loose ends remain. Why did they have to find mold in the walls? How much will the sisters actually receive? The show is based on the idea that they will pay for the renovations out of the proceeds of the sale.

But as I left the theater, these two sisters and their story remained with me.

For tickets visit LongWharf.org.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

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