There has been no shortage of books, plays and movies that explore the manifestations and consequences of mental illness. But rare is the work that deals directly and cogently with the subject's clinical issues. Tennessee Women's Theater Project accepts that challenge with its mounting of the regional premiere of The Disappearance of Janey Jones, Canadian Jennifer Fawcett's subtly moving 90-minute piece that profiles hereditary mental health problems and their effects on the family.
Rather than a loud, door-slamming drama, Fawcett delivers a thoughtful and well-crafted tale, propelled by an underlying tension of discovery as 20-something Janey (Leah Fincher), with the occasional assistance of her therapist, parses her emotional imbalances and psychic isolation in a painful attempt to understand the nature of her disease.
Playwright Fawcett expands this search by focusing equally on Janey's grandmother, June (Allison Cutler), who is viewed in flashbacks — a tender and sweet woman plagued by schizophrenic episodes and enduring the complications of pill therapy and its side effects.
In contrasting grandmother and granddaughter, the author hints at historical drug advancements in the treatment of mental illness. June clearly lived in an earlier time, when drug therapy mainly consisted of tranquilizers to subdue a patient. Janey, living in the present day, has more hope, since knowledge about chemical imbalances has spurred the development of more specifically targeted mood-stabilizers.
Fawcett also introduces us to the childhood Janey (played by youngster Abby Ekas), who emerges as a kind of alter ego providing perspective on her personal development and her youthful family experience.
Director Maryanna Clarke has staged this consistently engaging work with a lot of respect for its essential theme, and she elicits gratifying performances from her cast of seven, all making their TWTP debuts.
Cutler and Fincher credibly reflect the depression, fear, mood swings and reality gaps that haunt their characters, and in so doing exemplify a stigmatizing condition that has always been difficult for society to address. Equally effective is Holly Butler, in the unique role of Marion, Janey's mother, who has not been affected by the genetic link and thus has her own distinctive cross to bear. Also contributing are Joyce Jeffries as the articulate, sober-minded psychiatrist; Lane Wright as courageous, loving grandfather Harry; and Eric Ventress as Janey's supportive boyfriend Denys.
Though it might be considered an "issues" play, Janey Jones manages to both entertain and shed bright light on its thorny topic. Playwright Fawcett arrives in Nashville for the show's closing weekend and will lead a Q&A on March 10.
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