Julius by Design

By Kara Lee Corthron
Directed by Debbie Saivetz
Featuring Curran Connor, Suzzanne Douglas, Crystal Finn, Johnny Ramey, Christianna Nelson, Mike Hodge
The Fulcrum at Access Theater, 380 Broadway

July 10, 2011 — July 24, 2011
production web site:  http://fulcrumtheater.org/next-up

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
July 7, 2011

A seven character memory play about parenthood and loss and the instinct to love.  Julius by Design is a dream play and a morality play, a story of devastation and humor and hope.  Playwright Kara Lee Corthron paints a series of characters with humor, and some broad strokes that are variously successful in the small details.  The resolution to live in the real world without illusions, without a designed reality, is potently presented.

The central metaphor of constructing reality begins with a crossword-puzzling communication strategy used by a middle-aged couple surviving the grief, seven years on, of the death of their then sixteen year old son during a burglary. (“What’s a seven-letter word for scam artist?” is the first foray, and this habit of wordsmithing continues throughout the play.) Jo (Suzzanne Douglas) and her husband Laurel (Mike Hodge) have endured their loss differently.  She left her secondary school teaching job and spends significant time in grief counseling group sessions and makes herself available to other grieving parents, including Casey (Christianna Nelson) and Max (Curran Connor) who lost a little girl to a car accident.  The men Lauren and Max resist the group emotion sharing stuff and suffer variously for it.  The women reach out to one another.  A third woman George (also intriguingly named with a conventional male name, Chrystal Finn) presents herself as a door to door saleswoman who melts before Jo’s effusive maternal instincts, and gradually reveals that she knows more about the family than she initially lets on. Parenting and grief and resolve and health crises and literary allusions and humor.

And finally, intriguingly are the double cast roles of the incarcerated killer Ethan and the dead-but-alive-in-Jo-and-Laurel’s-dreams Julius (Johnny Ramey).  Father Laurel interacts with Julius in his dreams — the same interaction over and over (teenaged Julius returns for late night snack, watches television).  Mother Jo interacts in reality with the incarcerated young Ethan with whom she sympathizes, feels a connection, helps him to write his memoirs, corrects his grammar in letters, displacing her grief over Julius. The mechanics of Jo and Ethan’s interactions (that we are to understand are solely through written correspondence) are not consistently portrayed — gradually the playwright and director has the letter writers interact as if speaking on the phone, not long passages responded to in toto but snippets exchanged as a real-time conversation, and moving closer and closer to interacting in each other’s realms.  The characters eventually interact in a dream state that is somewhere in-between letter writing and perhaps a dream of Jo’s — in fact she talks of a dream when all the people in her life meet. A subsequent powerful theatrical moment is somewhat undercut for me by the extended dream state letter writing sections of the play which raise questions of where we are located as audience members for the interactions between Ethan and Jo.  It is unclear whether this is necessary to underscore the final powerful images of the play when Jo meets the released Ethan and we see as they see for the first time what Jo has imagined and who Ethan really is.

The design team has made much of a small black box 4th floor walk-up space.  Set design (Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams) utilizes a band of crumpled paper and realistic set pieces sparely and sufficiently arrayed to convey a range of locations.  Sound design by Rodrigo Espinosa Lozano augments sweetly but does not overwhelm the various states of consciousness in the play.

Dreams.  Loss.  Partnerships.  Hope.  A lovely first production with nuanced individual performances of a lovely play by a brand new theatre company.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 10, 2011)

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