A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
The first production of the newly launched theater company, Thalia’s Umbrella, is "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" written by Peter Nichols and performed at A Contemporary Theater. Director Peter Nichols says of Thalia’s Umbrella, "(It) produces plays that dance on the line between comedy and tragedy," and this production does exactly that.
First we meet Brian (Terry Edward Moore), the father of Josephine, or Joe Egg as the family calls her, during what is clearly the last period of the school day. "Eyes front, hands on heads," he exhorts the audience, enlisting our compliance as we sit meekly waiting for him to release us.
This is part of the charm of the production, this easy engagement with the audience. The characters are always aware of our presence and include us in their interactions frequently. The lighting, designed by Walter Kilmer, and the set, designed by Jason Phillips, help bring the audience in at those moments where we are welcome.
Terry Edward Moore plays Brian with a gawky, silly tenderness, rubbing up against the earthy good cheer of Sheila, Brian’s wife, played by Leslie Law. Moore and Law as Brian and Sheila have a wonderful chemistry together, full of humor and sexiness and the easy camaraderie of long companionship.
Brian and Sheila’s 10-year-old daughter, Joe Egg (Aidyn Stevens) has a severe disability. She is wheelchair-bound, unable to communicate in any way and unable to perform any sort of care for herself at all.
As a side note, I spent many years working in special education classrooms with exactly Joe’s population of children and Stevens does a marvelous job portraying the reality of Joe’s situation.
Despite Joe’s disability, the family seems tightly bound and happy enough with one another. Brian and Sheila weave their daily routines around caring for Joe: checking her diaper when she gets home from school, feeding and bathing her, creating a persona for Joe and having funny little interactions with her and each other.
When Sheila and Brian begin to tell the audience their story, they have that smooth patter of shared language and humor together. A bolster cushion stands in for baby Joe as they visit doctors and vicars and cope with illness and crises. As they act out their story, we start to see a slight difference in perspective, with Sheila always working and hoping for a miracle and Brian reckoning with reality and becoming embittered by it.
Sheila’s never-ending good cheer starts to feel brittle and desperate. When she talks about counting her blessings, she’s asked, "And that gives you fortitude?" "No," she replies, "but it’s something to do."
Brian, on the other hand, says he’d "rather have nothing than a lot of lies" and he begins to have the air of a trapped animal about to chew its leg off for freedom, his own humor a desperate attempt at self-preservation.
That slight difference gradually gaps into a gaping chasm over the course of the play, becoming particularly apparent when Freddie (Brandon Whitehead) and Pam (Carol Roscoe) come over to visit. Freddie who has a little crush on Sheila has clearly dragged Pam there. Roscoe as Pam is really marvelous, surreptitiously checking her watch during the visit or cutting her eyes at the audience while the other three dither on.
Pam and Freddie, together with Grace (Cecelia Frye), Joe’s grandmother who drops by, become an unwilling audience for the fracture of the fault line in Sheila and Brian’s marriage, finally bringing the whole family to crisis. Ultimately, none of them is truly coping with the reality of Joe’s existence, but are rather living in endless reaction to their sorrow in answer to Grace’s often repeated wondering, "Wouldn’t she have been lovely if she’d been running about?"
The space at ACT is intimate and perfect for this sort of play. Thalia’s Umbrella has embraced the challenge of a gritty, engaging story in "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." I’ll be interested to see how they develop from this strong start. Please note there is gunfire in this production.
"A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" runs through Feb. 17 at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-292-7660 or visit http://www.acttheatre.org/.