Dear Jane, Slow Down and Focus. You’re Losing Me.
What would a play look like if you took hundreds of pages of someone’s diary, and threw them up into the air. And after letting them all land on the ground in a scattered mess, you gathered up maybe twenty-five or thirty of those pages randomly, and tried to create something out of the pieces of the puzzle in the order you picked them up. Think of Dear Jane, by Joan Beber, as that something, a play made from all those tidbits of a person’s life, out of order. But in this case, it is told by someone who can’t focus too long on any one page and who has a tendency to want to move swiftly from one to another, especially the bits that are troubling or traumatic. Does that sound like a good idea? Or a colossal mess?
The first few scenes held promise. A wonderfully authentic gathering of actors getting ready to rehearse a play, doing all those strange and wonderful things actors do: vocal exercises, physical acts to limber themselves and/or shake off the real world they are about to leave behind. Fictional Julie, played by the talented Jenny Piersol standing in for the real life author, has written a play, and she has gathered this band of thespians to work on the piece as she struggles through the emotional journey she is both writing and living. Reading a bit from the program, we are given this note from the actual playwright: “Dear Jane is my most meaningful play. It is about me and my identical twin, she died ten years ago. We adored and hated and adored each other. She was first born and first to die. She was everything to me”. So I was ready, prepared, and a bit disturbed by this note all at the same time, for this very personal exploration into what it all means; to be a twin, and to survive when the other is gone. What I wasn’t prepared for was the distance the playwright has placed between herself and the painful story.
All of a sudden we are with Julie, as she is driving a car down a the country road. She gets a call, hears about her twin sister’s death, slams on the brakes, and then without a moment to take in the enormity of that news, the play shifts time and moves on to another scene. It feels shocking, to say the least. Are we just supposed to just hold onto that piece of devastating news? And why the car and the projections of a road in the back? It feels random and meaningless, much like many of the scene changes and shifts in time. The projections, designed by lighting designer Gertjan Houben (Irish Rep’s Crackskull Row) are beautifully done but as meaningful as the scenes in front of them. There doesn’t seem to hold any reason to these quick succession of scenes, but we are given no time to dawdle on such details. The set is forever in flux, with lots of movement of props and objects that seem unnecessary (scenic design: John McDermott; costume design: Lara De Bruijn) and trivial. This thing keeps moving forward and backwards quickly and without warning, from short scene to even shorter scene. Because maybe, just maybe, if we stand in one place and let one scene sit in the emotion that the information has given us, even for a moment, it might become real and hard to deal with. So we drive on forward, not slamming on the brakes for anything or anyone.
The cast is game to all these quick and rapid fire scenes. Pulling themselves together well and orchestrating the movements clearly and succinctly as directed by Katrin Hilbe. The director does manage to keep it moving and as focused as the text would allow, but doesn’t manage to save it from mangling itself. Jane, portrayed with an annoying haughtiness by Amanda Rose (Paper Mill’s A Chorus Line) lingers around whispering in her alive sister’s ear. It’s a complex relationship, naturally, but does she have to be so dismissive? Julie is the twin who has to sit back and watch as her sister seems to be living life better at every turn. That must be exhausting and disturbing to live in constant competition with the other, but then to outlive the golden one, it’s hard to imagine all the levels of guilt, shame, and remorse. In the bones of this piece, there is a great story of twin sisters and how they have an effect on one another, especially when death comes early for one. But we are only given glimpses into those feelings, before quickly shifting to another year and another time. Julie and Jane become the cartoon characters projected on the back wall, two dimensional without much warmth.
It’s hard to keep up with the years and the important events. And there are a number of very big moments that happen before we even know it. Some interesting although simplistic and clichéd choreography by Wendy Seyb (HBO’s ‘The Pee-wee Herman Show’) indicates some sort of physical attack that Julie had to endure, but I’m not sure of the details nor how it really affected her because the dance ends and the time period shifts before I was able to process what just was alluded to. Bad marriages, physically abusive relationships, troubled parent/child relationships are also alluded to, but sadly, the details and the effect get lost in the muddled quick succession of events, times, and people. Santina Umbach plays Julie’s daughter, Jill at all different ages, sometimes successfully but other times like a cartoon or a Saturday Night Live sketch character. I must admit during the show I kept getting confused. Is there only one daughter being portrayed here by Umbach, or are there two.
The same could be said of Michael Romeo Ruocco as boyfriend, Roger. Does he play more than one romantic partner or numerous? Roger seems like one terrible boyfriend/husband(?). I wanted more exploration into the dynamics of this love affair, because he doesn’t seem to have been worth staying around with for so long, but this play doesn’t linger on the silly questions of why or how. We just know that it was a bad relationship, and than we move on. Brandon Timmons as Jaxon, the grandson (along with numerous other characters) seems to be left a bit out on the limb, with not much to do except jump in when an extra is needed or a moment of acrobatic, “Grandma, look what I can do?” The same could be said of other grandchild, Nina, played by Holly Cinnamon, who’s given a ukulele and a song to sing, and not much else.
Lastly, there is another subject shoved into this drama, the politics of a death row inmate, Tommy, portrayed with a sensitive air by Joh Kovach. Julie is one of his only visitors and she tries with all her might to save him from lethal injection. I wasn’t quite sure why she took up this cause. I think it had something to do with her sister, but I can’t be sure. There is a beauty in this scenario, but also a feeling of patting oneself on the back. It doesn’t seem to fit with the concept of the rest of the play, the sibling rivalry and her mourning. It just hangs there, quite dramatically as a thing that she did, and not much else. I will reiterate that the cast gives it their all, and do their very best (to different levels of success) with the material given, but as a whole they are not seasoned enough to pull it off.
In therapy, sometimes we propose to a person who is in the midst of an upsetting moment, the possibility of just pausing and staying with an emotional moment. Asking them with compassion and empathy, to take a minute or two to feel what they are feeling. And if they are feeling safe enough, to let the emotion envelope them, and together, we can explore what it truly is and feels like. This is what is needed in this play, yet never attempted. Dear Jane, needs to stop for a minute or two, and say, “this thing hurts, can we explore?” and only than can one connect, and move forward into peace and understanding.