As soon as the audience enters Signature Theatre’s ARK, they become immersed in the world of Daphne’s Dive. To get to their seats, they must walk across the black-and-white checkered linoleum floor of the set, passing right by the show’s titular bar. “I feel like we should have a beer,” my neighbor whispered to me prior to the curtain opening. The closeness and immersion with the set immediately makes the audience feel at home, fitting for a play that seeks to define the word. Daphne’s Dive tells a story of a found family among a group of “misfits.” The show’s deep dive into the characters’ identities ignites a diverse scope of potential connections that allows audiences to reflect on their own ideas of community.
The stage is decorated as I imagined a dive bar in the 90s would be decorated—red vinyl bar stools, colorful string lights, gumball machines, a jukebox in the corner, and a Philadelphia Flyers pendant on the wall. Local Philadelphia radio stations filled the time between the house opening and start of the show. The intricate details of the set transport audiences into the bar itself, allowing them to develop a raw sense of empathy for and connection to the characters throughout the show.
Daphne’s Dive, one of Signature Theatre’s spring productions running until March 20th, follows the lives of seven acquaintances-turned-family over the course of eighteen years. Daphne (Rayanne Gonzales), the owner of a self-named Philadelphia hole-in-the-wall bar, seeks to create a space of community and culture at her dive, embracing her Puerto Rican upbringing while tying in local Philadelphian traditions. The first two patrons of Daphne’s Dive introduced exemplify the eclecticism and character of the joint. Pablo (Jonathan Atkinson) is an aspiring artist and Rey (Jefferson A. Russell)—a biker relatively new to the pack—agrees to hire Pablo to paint his motorcycle. Pablo lacks art materials and finds work where he can; throughout the show, his starved artist mindset exhibits itself in his ongoing projects of turning garbage into art. Rey’s agreement to the paint job is indicative of his easy-going nature in the group. Next enters Jenn (Quynh-My Luu), a free-spirited advocate for freedom who dances to spread her message. She returns to the bar from a protest wearing red-white-and-blue shorts, pasties, and a cape, characteristic of her free spirit and self confidence. Daphne’s sister Inez (Yesenia Iglesias) and her husband Acosta (James Whalen) round out the dive’s regulars until the crew is upended by the introduction of 11-year-old Ruby (Jyline Carranza).
Ruby—whose family was recently evicted from the apartment unit above the Daphne’s Dive— stumbles into the bar after jumping from the window to escape the police raid of her home. At just 11-years-old, Ruby finds herself alive but alone. She wanders into Daphne’s bar and is welcomed with open arms by Daphne and her comrades. Both physically and emotionally wounded, Ruby gets back on her feet with the help of the dive-goers.
As the story develops, it becomes clear that the setting at Daphne’s Dive is integral to the lives of its characters. The bar acts as more of a living room for the seven characters rather than a public venue. The half-filled drinks and jackets on the coat rack that the audience passed by on their way in allowed for a seamless and intimate transition into the action of the show.
The scene transitions take place organically, despite the story spanning nearly two decades. The consistent bar set allows for these fluid transitions, with costume changes hanging on hooks and exits that appear to be the door to a bathroom, back kitchen, and the sidewalk. Following Ruby’s initial entrance, the characters embrace, nail a shoe to the bar, and change clothing on stage with slightly dimmed lights. Next, the show picks up when Ruby is 15. Rather than being seen as merely a kid, Ruby is treated as a part of the dive’s found family, just like the other regulars. Nonetheless, the adults are protective of Ruby given her young age and tumultuous past.
As the years go by, the show reveals the trauma and biases that connect the characters to one another and impact their relationships. From abuse to familial disownment to feeling lost in the world, the group turns to one another in solace. None of the characters’ storylines or personalities fit together on paper. However, the unconventional nature of this group makes their bonds stronger.
At the core of each characters’ goals and ambitions is a desire to make their community—both the city of Philadelphia and their own group of friends—better. Acosta is a businessman that helps his friends with rent more months than not. He eventually runs for city office with the support of most of the dive’s regulars. The way in which Pablo puts people’s trash onto canvases demonstrates his desire to turn what is discarded into something beautiful. In a similar way to which he creates art, Pablo provides his friends with comfort in times of disappointment and tragedy throughout the show. Rey is probably the quietest of the characters, but his wisdom and shoulder-to-lean-on demeanor speaks volumes. Inez has a “cool aunt” attitude with advice and open ears to go around for all. She finds strength in her Puerto Rican roots and her feminine power in a way that uplifts and empowers the other characters. Ruby, for her part, keeps the group young. While she often feels that the others shield her from certain truths due to her youth, Ruby maintains a simultaneous hopefulness and maturity beyond her years. Ruby feels that Jenn is the only one who is completely honest with her. Jenn would die for her beliefs and the people she cares about. And, of course, Daphne brings this community together not only with the physical space of her bar, but with her hospitality and reliability.
The diversity of the characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and ambitions appeals to a diverse audience. The show’s characterization creates a realistic world that is relatable to viewers. The strong development of each character allows audience members to grasp onto a different element of characters’ personalities and experiences. In embracing the ups and downs of community throughout the performance, Daphne’s Dive invites an honest form of reflection on the audience’s personal relationships.
The show’s use of time was particularly interesting. The story spanned eighteen years, and time was kept by an announcement by Ruby of her own age. In the opening line, Ruby says, “I am eleven,” the lights fall, and the scene proceeds. Each leap through time occurs this way, ending with Ruby at age 29. At this time, Ruby has taken over the bar from Daphne and the show comes full circle in its renewal of the dive’s mission and sense of community. Following the age-29 scene, the story cuts back to the first week Ruby came into Daphne’s life. This scene reveals the unconventional manner in which the show seeks to define family. From the early stages of their relationship, Daphne and Ruby–despite their differences in age and background—found kinship in each other through shared healing.
Daphne’s Dive tells a story full of love, neglect, and friendship through the unlikely companionship of seven colorful characters. The production’s rich development of characters allows for a strong sense of connection between the audience and the cast. The show demonstrates that family can be found when you least expect it and need it most. In bringing together an unlikely group of characters, Daphne’s Dive invites viewers to consider their own ideas of community.
Daphne’s Dive runs at Signature Theatre until March 20, 2022.