Through Saturday, March 10
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham

The words of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes still resonate half a century later: “Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.” But don’t tell playwright Jen Silverman that. The Moors, her often funny, abruptly plaintive drama, now running at Manbites Dog Theater, cautions us to closely interrogate our fondest dreams instead. For the women who populate Silverman’s world, few things are truly more dangerous, both to themselves and to others, than an overactive imagination combined with an almost total lack of agency. (Curiously, The Moors is not the only regional production currently bearing such a message; see also Theatre in the Park’s Assassins and Bartlett Theater’s Gidion’s Knot.)

Silverman’s loving but decidedly left-handed tribute to the worlds created by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë threads biographical and plot devices from their major novels into a toothsome critique of Gothic romance. The sudden arrival of governess Emily (a confident Jessica Flemming) to an ill-kept mansion on the desolate British lowlands hardly interrupts the spinster Agatha (a steely Jessica Hudson) in her imperious recital of the shortcomings of her younger sister, Huldey (a feverish Tamara Kissane, ridiculously coiffed and costumed by Sarah McCabe), the family retainer (a sullen Sarah Koop), and a melancholy mastiff (Nick Popio).

After admonishing Emily that “the moors are a savage place,” Agatha admits to authoring the increasingly romantic mash notesand solicitation of employmentsupposedly written by her brother, Branwell, that lured Emily to this isolated place. Agatha unapologetically asserts that she cannot stand weakness in herself and will not abide it in others.

“There is no weakness in the moors,” she says. “When I come out here, I am surrounded by merciless strength.” Those revelations dampen neither Emily’s ardor nor Agatha’s clearly dominating machinations. The rub, however, is in how those acts play out with Huldey and the servant of the house, characters with dreams of their own that may not be compatible with Agatha’s.

Kissane’s Huldey, after being emotionally neglected for decades, has retreated into an imagined world where fame as a writer makes hers the name on everyone’s lips. When she’s unable to interest anyone in the pages of her supposedly scandalous diary, she becomes even more ravenous for the attentions and affection Emily is giving Agatha. In The Moors, dreams long denied find their full expression to the detriment of all concerned, in a comic send-up of classic melodrama with a cautionary barb at the end.