‘Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally’ presents a dark future for a childhood classic

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Treshelle Edmond, left, and Neimah Djourabchi in “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally.” Credit: Teresa Castracane.

Even if you never read a “Dick and Jane” book, you probably can conjure one up in your head: an illustrated reading primer with simplistic “see Spot run” sentences, starring an equally simplistic white, middle class, suburban nuclear family.

Well, playwright Noah Diaz, currently earning his MFA at the Yale School of Drama, has imagined a more complex and interesting future for the Dick and Jane of these anodyne books.

In his “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally,” now making its world premiere at Baltimore Center Stage, Dick and Jane have grown up, and grown apart. Throughout a darkly comic 90-minute, no-intermission production, they struggle with fear, loneliness and epic failures to communicate.

Turns out, Dick and Jane became orphans at a young age, and Jane left for the big city. Dick, now known as Richard, tried to live the life prescribed to him by the “Dick and Jane” books. He stayed in the ’50s-era home where he grew up, and now has two children–Richard Jr., known as Dick, and Sally. But life–and a whole lot of death–are getting in the way.

Richard and his children struggle to connect with others, in different ways.

Dick, embodied by a tightly wound Jay Cobian, desperately wants to see his mother, who recently died. So he wears her chic green pumps over his tube socks, and ties her silky blue head scarf over his curls, hoping her clothing will somehow summon her. When she does appear, hilariously played in perfectly coifed splendor by Vanessa Kai, he soaks up her attention and praise.

Sally is deaf. Played by Treshelle Edmond, an actor with profound hearing loss, she struggles to read lips and speak. But it’s tough to understand people when they don’t look directly at her.

Richard, played by Neimah Djourabchi, is dying, and continually lies about his physical pain.

Even the family dog, Spot, a bone-chewing and sometimes scenery-chewing Noah Averbach-Katz, struggles to be understood, alternately talking and barking.

The story begins when Jane (a stellar Michelle Beck, always sensitive but never maudlin) returns to the family home, which she describes as a “weird museum” that the elder Dick never left. She’s adamant that she has no money to give, and no desire to care for her niece and nephew. Richard is just as sure that he expects nothing from her.

But as she settles into family life, those barriers soften. Jane sees how Sally struggles to communicate and convinces her to learn sign language, even though Richard wants her to read lips and speak. He worries that nobody will listen to a daughter who signs and a son who wear’s women’s clothes.

As Richard and Jane reconnect, they recall the Dick and Jane stories of their youth. They discuss one story in particular, when the dad sails away in a boat, alone, and agree it’s about the father dying. (I found the story online. The illustration is as described–a father rowing away in a boat as the children watch from shore. But I don’t buy their interpretation.)

Yet for all this isolation and missed communication, the 90-minute show is full of talk, much of it humorous and warm.

Shown in Baltimore Center Stage’s smaller Head Theater, the play has the intimate feel of a family barbecue. The play’s single set uses a few pieces of mid-century furniture to sketch a kitchen, two bedrooms, living room and yard.

Diaz, who hails from Nebraska, is too young to have read “Dick and Jane” books in school. But he has taken some important themes from the primers, which taught millions of children how to read but also, in their own way, imparted a vision of family life.

Unlike the stories that inspired it, “Richard & Jane and Dick & Sally” is original and thought-provoking, a story of a complex family learning how to say two simple but fraught phrases: hello and goodbye.

“Richard & Jane and Dick & Sally” is at Baltimore Center Stage through March 1.

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