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‘Dragon Lady’ Explores What It Means to Become a Mother Before Becoming a Woman

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The first thing to note about Sara Porkalob’s “Dragon Lady,” which has returned to the Oberon a year after its 2018 run, is that she is the only actress. She begins her descent down a flight of stairs, and though there’s a traditional stage at the front of the audience, in reality, Porkalob is free to command the entire space: she hops onto the bar, grabs an audience member to dance, and pops in and out of the dizzying array of characters listed on the playbill without pausing. Porkalob wants to make it clear, early on, that this is not a story about “a normal family talking about politics or Tupperware,” but rather a story of pain, humor, and an unswerving sense of obligation from one generation to the next. It’s difficult at first to know how the play will end — where in one’s life do the curtains close as though the story is finished, even when it is not? — but Porkalob’s own birth, seen through the eyes of her mother Maria and her grandmother, is a fitting near-end to a moving show filled with biting one-liners that are both funny and unflinchingly true.

Porkalob tells her grandmother’s story through a series of interconnected flashbacks — first to her own childhood, when her grandmother originally told her these stories, then to the moments, many punctuated by karaoke, in which the stories actually play out.

Porkalob’s ability to portray roughly two dozen characters — in roughly two dozen distinct ways — deserves a word of praise. Any production with few actors or even one risks that characterization will be muddied. Such is not the case in “Dragon Lady,” however. The first interaction between Maria Porkalob Jr. and Maria Porkalob Sr. — Porkalob’s grandmother — highlights Porkalob’s agile shifting from one character to another and provides the first of many perspectives into her grandmother’s loving fierceness.

This trait evolves over the course of the play, but never wavers in its intensity. As a young mother she says, “I want you to take this golf club… If you don’t kill her, I will kill you,” and only a few years later, upon meeting her granddaughter, says, “Can I hold the little cheesecake baby?” Porkalob delivers both these lines with an aggressiveness that only just reveals the love Maria Porkalob Sr. has for her family. Much of the play focuses on the physical and emotional sacrifices Porkalob’s grandmother made to save herself and raise her children, but these choices are akin to an ocean swirling around an iceberg: There are only small explicit demonstrations of love, even though beneath the surface lies a deep desire to see nothing but the best for the generations that follow.

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Tidal movements can act as a metaphor for the play as a whole. Porkalob’s choice to interweave her grandmother’s songs with Peter Irving’s original compositions for the play itself propels the narrative from one moment in the past to another, linking the emotional gravitas of disparate events through song. Even the genres of music vary from one portion of the play to the next: Disco and musical theater intermingle as if to unify anecdotes that take place across the decades.

The comical moments — such as when a young Maria Sr. is caught up in the interests of a naval officer and cannot resist saying, “He was tall and majestic, at least five-foot-six” — support a darker commentary on and the inevitable misunderstanding by younger generations as they look back on the choices she has made. These one-liners are powerful in their own way, but the emotional apex of the play is near the very end, after Maria Jr. gives birth at 19, demonstrating that sometimes history does have a tendency to repeat itself. Maria Sr. knows this, telling Maria Jr. that she didn’t want her to repeat her own past, a concept that is a common refrain in the play and encapsulates one type of immigrant pain, which explains Maria Sr.’s metaphorical absence throughout the story as she struggles to support her children from afar.

Yet the climax does not end with this scene; rather, it ends with the last scene in “Dragon Lady,” the appearance of Porkalob’s grandmother on stage. The two women, of course, sing together, and in one moment they simply look at each other. The play’s entirety leads to that one fittingly beautiful exchange of mutual understanding and love.

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