GLOUCESTER — The title character of Tina Fey’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’’ might well recognize a soul mate in Dotty, the endearing, initially clueless protagonist of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Out of Sterno.’’
Like Kimmy, Dotty is preternaturally cheerful in the face of unnerving circumstances. Like Kimmy, Dotty embarks on a new and life-changing path — a journey that, in her case, begins with the decision to finally step outside the apartment her husband has forbidden her to leave for seven years.
As that scenario suggests, Laufer’s comic fable ventures into some tricky tonal territory, requiring a guide who is in synch with the playwright’s intriguingly off-kilter sensibility. Director Paula Plum proves to be just that, skillfully helming a Gloucester Stage Company production of “Out of Sterno’’ that delivers on the play’s farcical humor and its deeper resonance.
We’re not talking “A Doll’s House’’-level resonance, mind you. “Out of Sterno’’ is deliberately cartoonish and over-the-top in its portrait of the world inhabited by 23-year-old Dotty and the events that punctuate her bid for independence. But in its cockeyed way Laufer’s 2009 comedy manages to say a pertinent thing or two about the challenges women face as they wrestle with issues of self-worth, including but not limited to our culture’s misguided yet strangely durable ideas about beauty and body image.
“I’m just trying to find out how to be a real woman,’’ Dotty says, and as “Out of Sterno’’ follows her bumpy quest for answers, the virtuosic portrayal of Dotty by Amanda Collins is central to the production’s success. It’s gratifying to see this talented actress, last seen at Gloucester Stage two summers ago in Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,’’ get the kind of showcase she deserves, and doubly gratifying to see her make such assured use of it.
Another treat: “Out of Sterno’’ allows the gifted and glamorous Jennifer Ellis to tap into her inner Fran Drescher — who knew? — as Zena, the brassy owner of a beauty “emporium’’ in the fictional town of Sterno. Clad in skin-tight leopard-skin pants and three-colored high heels, Ellis’s Zena is a human volcano of self-confidence and self-regard. Ellis appears to be having a ball channeling the primal crudeness of Zena, a sharp departure from the elegant characters she portrayed in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Far From Heaven,’’ Stoneham Theatre’s “The Secret Garden,’’ and Lyric Stage Company’s “City of Angels.’’
“Elegant” is not a word anyone would use to describe Dotty. The word “adult’’ doesn’t really seem to apply, either. She spends her days working on art projects, and when we first meet her, Dotty is attired in a paint-smattered smock. Jon Savage’s set emphasizes Dotty’s virtual imprisonment in a childlike world, encircling her with bric-a-brac that includes a small wooden rocking horse and a teapot that seems ready for Alice and the rest of the Wonderland crew to sit down and start pouring. Periodically confiding in the audience — she seems to need our approval — Dotty often invokes one of her mother’s upside-down aphorisms. Sample maternal advice: “Don’t believe what you see, believe what you’re told.’’
Dear old mom is not the most repressive figure in Dotty’s life, however. That distinction belongs to her ultra-controlling husband, Hamel, well played by Noah Tuleja as equal parts menacing boor and oblivious lunkhead. Rounding out the “Out of Sterno’’ cast is Richard Snee, Plum’s real-life husband, who delivers the goods in a variety of small roles, several of them female.
When Dotty begins to suspect that Hamel is having an affair, she musters up her courage and defies his injunction never to leave their apartment, following the classic dramatic trajectory of the innocent venturing into the wicked world (or down the rabbit hole, or through the looking glass. . .). Turns out that Hamel is cheating with none other than Zena. In a further twist, Dotty ends up working for Zena, who does not know of her new employee’s connection to her paramour.
Trading her drab housedress for a leopard-skin jumpsuit, Dotty starts to discover things about her abilities, her possibilities, her self. But a collision between her two divergent worlds — the one with Zena and the one with Hamel — seems inevitable.
As events take their twisty course, you never stop rooting for Dotty. Collins makes sure of that, earning both laughs and empathy for her character. When, overwhelmed by the sharp turns of her learning curve, Dotty wails, “I have so much to read!,’’ the actress’s delivery is pretty priceless. When Dotty begins to subvert Hamel’s control of her, Collins conveys Dotty’s combination of surprise and delight at her new powers.
And when, in the evocatively rendered final moments of this fine production, Dotty takes some steps that are even more decisive and dramatic than the ones she took when she first left that apartment, it feels just right.
OUT OF STERNO
Play by Deborah Zoe Laufer
Directed by Paula Plum
Set, Jon Savage. Costumes, Elisabetta Polito. Lights, Russ Swift. Sound, David Wilson.
Presented by Gloucester Stage Company. Through July 18. Tickets $28, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com