Just like their movie counterparts, indie theatricals can often prove more intriguing and rewarding than splashier fare. That's definitely the case with John & Jen, the Andrew Lippa/Tom Greenwald musical currently enjoying its Nashville premiere.
Co-star Martha Wilkinson performed this piece some years ago in Michigan, and it was her idea to mount it locally as a one-off — with relatively little advance notice — at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. With Johnny Peppers producing, Wilkinson has teamed up with the talented Patrick Waller to present a musically vibrant, often very touching two-performer portrait of American family life, spanning from the 1950s through 1990.
The essential tale concerns a brother and sister, she becoming a hippie and he joining the military during the tumultuous '60s/Vietnam era. Sociopolitical changes through the decades mark the play's passage of time, as do birth and death, marriage, parenthood, divorce, sibling love and rivalry, plus more prosaic realities such as baseball, Christmas and the rise of trash TV.
If shibboleths such as "Where you come from is nowhere like where you're going" seem a little too easy, those are certainly counteracted by the script's realistically dour accents on absentee fatherhood, abuse, the pain of separation, adolescent concerns and other family troubles. These bittersweet themes are well complemented by the score, some 25 numbers written with contemporary theatrical élan and executed with passion and high professionalism by the two stars.
Equally important to the show's success are the performances of pianist Knox Ewing and cellist Melodie Morris, who, under the direction of Tim Fudge, provide elegant accompaniment for the almost oratorio-like presentation. Ewing and Morris are precociously good on their instruments, and at times they function as a kind of musical Greek chorus.
John & Jen is serious, high-class theater, with well-constructed material that evokes laughter and sober personal reflection in equal measure. Wilkinson and Waller bring it to life with rare but gratifying chemistry, and the intimacy of the small-scale production only makes their accomplishment loom larger. In this case, less yields more and more.
More problematic in results, but also more challenging in its execution, is Actors Bridge Ensemble's Judevine, in which 10 actors of varying skill levels under the attentive direction of Ross Bolen embody the characters of a depressed rural Vermont town. There's definitely a Wilderesque folksiness to author David Budbill's portraits, though this is a harder bunch than we meet in Our Town — beset with more troublesome personalities, fewer economic prospects and less hope for the future.
ABE's converted studio space at Neuhoff debuts as a guerrilla-theater-inspired venue: it seems appropriate for this often brooding piece, in which Budbill offers scene after scene of New England townies weathering their weather. In two densely packed acts, he fills nearly three hours of running time with details of their stark, lower-class, land-locked existence.
The length is mitigated, though, by Bolen's penchant for keeping his cast moving physically, with narrations crisply and precisely broken up and then shared by the players. Individual performances are a mixed bag, but Jeff Miller distinguishes himself with his turn as a gruff, frustrated bigot. Others contributing worthy characterizations include Linda Speir, Elliott Robinson and Joseph Stanley.
Bolen's original underscoring — with acoustic guitar and mandolin processed via MIDI to create crisp textures with often haunting melodies — affirms the play's claustrophobic mood while also providing a necessary pulse. Lighting designer Richard Davis also contributes some interesting washes and effects.
Judevine continues through Feb. 14.
The return of David Auburn's Proof to Tennessee Rep is a successful one. It's a respected cast under René Copeland's sure-handed direction, featuring three familiar locals — Chip Arnold, Eric Pasto-Crosby and Erin Whited — plus the intriguing new face of Anna Felix in the challenging role of Catherine, the brilliant but emotionally distraught younger daughter of a mathematician father whom she nursed through his final years. Felix conveys the character's subdued anger and isolation with credibility, then makes the transition deftly to her more combative, ultimately more lucid persona, fighting her way appealingly to the play's upbeat ending.
Arnold is well-cast as the phantom dad, wry and warm, and Pasto-Crosby, despite perhaps too many self-conscious tics, handles Catherine's so-called nerdy suitor agreeably. Whited fully yet understatedly commands the stage as the big sister, revealing once more her engaging presence, her versatility and her natural gift for portraying both strength and vulnerability.
As for the play itself, another viewing exposes certain elements of hokum: Various motivations and plot points are treated, of necessity, with more drama than they might merit under close scrutiny. Thus are stage conflicts sometimes made. Nevertheless, Auburn's dialogue is sharply rendered, his jokes about Chicago and academia work resoundingly, and his overall structure is admirably tight.
Proof continues at TPAC's Johnson Theater through Feb. 20.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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