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Theatre in Review: Dear Jane (Theatre Row)

Photo: Russ Rowland.

Dear Jane is a concept in search of a play, a bewildering collection of dramatic bits that pretend to lay bare the soul of playwright Joan Beber while revealing nothing at all. In a program note, Beber says the play is about herself and her identical twin sister, Jane, who died ten years ago. "We adored and hated and adored each other. She teaches me how to live and how to die," she adds. Well, you'll have to take that on faith: Jane may have title billing, but the spotlight is firmly on Julie, the author's stand-in, and her five decades of remarkably banal experiences.

The play is structured as one long series of free associations, a series of brief scenes -- many lasting less than a minute or two -- that hopscotch around the years. They include the assault, during Julie's college years, that leaves her with a legacy of agoraphobia; her bad marriage to a cold, controlling spouse; her bad affair with a cold, controlling lover; her years spent in thrall to Krishna Consciousness and other cultish movements ("I swore by each guru and groupie," she admits); her failed attempts at obtaining clemency for the convicted murderer Thomas Thompson; her stop-and-start careers as painter and playwright; and, the indignities of advanced age. She also has a rather fraught relationship with her daughter, Jill, who tends to view her mother as a self-involved spiritual day-tripper with few, if any, maternal skills. Actually, I'm with Jill on that one.

As if suspecting that a scrapbook of snapshots from a life might not be enough, Beber has come up with an elaborate framing device: We are watching a rehearsal of the play Dear Jane, directed by and starring Julie. Although she is in her 80s, Julie is played by the young actress Jenny Piersol, leaving it to you to figure out how someone who looks to be on the sunny side of 30 is haunted by memories from half a century earlier. The play is also a work in progress; after the Hare Krishna scene, Julie tells her cast to take a break, saying, "I'm stuck about what to write next." Theatregoers who spend money to watch a play about a woman writing a play about herself may not be amused.

This framing device exists, as far as I can see, to make the point that Julie can't let go of the memory of Jane. Early on in the rehearsal, a coffin is rolled onstage, out of which pops the actress playing Jane, ready to offer color commentary on her sister's life choices; even though Julie wrote and directed this scene, it upsets her so much that she can't go on with it. From then on, Jane is left standing around, occasionally making a barbed comment. This may be an accurate depiction of the sisters' relationship: Beber, a pro when it comes to settling scores, complains that Jane is unsupportive, offering as evidence that Jane never visited her after that traumatic college event. "I went into therapy after your attack," Jane replies, by way of defending herself.

Otherwise, it's all Julie all the time, and her life, as presented here, is one long stream of clich├ęs. "I was there, but I was not present," she confesses to the frequently ticked-off Jill. "Why is Shakespeare so today?" she wonders to Tommy. "He thinks, he speaks," comes the reply. Positively bubbling over a production of Waiting for Godot (!), she says, "People wait and they wait for Godot, for God. How profound." As Samuel Beckett might have said, Oh, brother.

Dear Jane is more painless that you might expect, because the director, Katrin Hilbe, makes sure that her cast -- every one of them personable and a pro -- maintains a lively pace. Piersol relies on her natural command of the stage and her brisk personality, never mind that the role makes no sense. Santina Umbach brings some nice shadings to Jill, arguably the only character who has Julie's number. Michael Romeo Ruocco does his best with the twin thankless roles of Max, the ex-husband, and Roger, the ex-boyfriend, a pair of two-dimensional abusers. Jon Kovach gives an appealing spin to Tommy, who here is presented as a saint, whatever the truth of his case may be.

John McDermott's rehearsal room set is dominated by a large, tilted screen onto which Gertjan Houben projects pleasant swatches of color -- an allusion to Julie's career as an artist -- that provides some welcome visual variety. Houben's lighting confidently switches between different realities, creating especially moody and effective looks for the prison scenes. Andy Evan Cohen's music skillfully helps to locate a number of scenes in the correct setting and time frame; he also provides an array of sound effects.

Dear Jane ends on a beach in Mexico, with Julie dancing with all of the characters from her past, including Jane. Apparently, her emotional block has been removed; she certainly looks a lot happier than anyone attending a performance of Dear Jane is likely to feel. -- David Barbour

(27 July 2017)

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