BWW Reviews: Fine Performances Highlight TWTP's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF JANEY JONES

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Playwright Jennifer Fawcett will be making a trip to Nashville in the coming weeks, just in time for the closing weekend of Tennessee Women's Theater Project's production of her play The Disappearance of Janey Jones-news that is probably met with a justifiable mixture of glee and dread by director Maryanna Clarke's talented cast and crew.

But think about it: How intimidating must it be for Fawcett to have such an encounter in her future? After all, she's a Canadian playwright coming to the states to see how the company-and audiences-have accepted her work. And, if she's like every other writer I've ever known, she probably worries if her "baby" has been placed in the hands of the right caretakers and if those people sitting out in the darkness of the theater understand her intentions, if they embrace her characters and, probably most importantly, do they accept the premise of her play and its unwavering focus on the realities of depression and bipolar disorder and all manner of other mental health challenges.

I'm happy to report that director Clarke and her capable actors have delivered a well-paced, thoughtful iteration of Fawcett's work, one that is certain to promote conversation and introspection, and which TWTP audiences have taken to their collective heart. In fact, The Disappearance of Janey Jones fits perfectly into TWTP's mission of giving women their full voice via the theater arts while provoking thought and discussion through the company's continued examination of the very things in life that affect-and confound-us all.

That's not to say that The Disappearance of Janey Jones is the comedy romp of the season. It's not. It's a heartfelt consideration of the difficulties faced by people who suffer from mental illness in a world where others might scoff at them, telling them to "get better…be your old self…" The one-act play certainly has its lighter moments and the presentation of the subject matter is done so with a deft hand, but if you suffer from depression or any other mental health compromised or challenged in any way, you might find it hard to watch. In fact, there were moments I squirmed in my seat, looked away or fumbled with my program-The Disappearance of Janey Jones definitely made me antsy-but Fawcett's play is written in such a way and it is performed by Clarke's cast with such conviction that makes it eminently accessible and somehow appealing.

A simple plot synopsis tells us that Janey, a talented journalist in her late 20s, has "lost her job, her boyfriend's dumped her, and now she's on a crash course into the same mental torment that swallowed her grandmother. Desperate and alone, the past and present collide around her as her room is invaded by a fortune teller, her doctor, her dead grandparents, her ex and her mother. And then something magical happens-she meets herself as a child. Perhaps this little girl can convince Janey that a future lies beyond the darkness, a future that's worth getting out of bed to find."

Fawcett relates Janey's story in non-linear fashion, with the play's various times and settings moving forward and backward on the turn of a phrase, the very mention of a word or the vaguest suggestion of a memory. But her script never lacks clarity: She gives us the information we need to grant us entrée into Janey's world as we meet the most important people in her life and feel the impact of their existence on her very life and personality. It's a slippery slope to be sure, but the cast keeps its footing, thus making the onstage tale far more believable and genuine than you might suspect.

There are moments of whimsy and good humor, but they are counterbalanced by darker, more serious overtones that give us the full measure of the the impact of mental illness on Janey's family since the much-earlier time in which her grandmother June's flights of fancy were first determined to be examples of her own tenuous hold on reality.

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Leah Fincher makes her Nashville stage debut in the pivotal role of Janey and she does an exemplary job of moving the play's action along as we are welcomed into Janey's inner sanctum-we first meet her in her girlhood bedroom at her mother's home-as she deals with the ramifications of her grandmother's suicide at "The Home (with a capital H)," as her eight-year-old self (Abby Ekas gives a perfectly nuanced performance that heralds much to come from this talented young actress) tells both Janey and us. The last time I saw Fincher onstage it was in Rabbit Hole at Out Front on Main in Murfreesboro and, as in that earlier onstage outing, she possesses an everywoman quality that allows audiences to identify with her anguish and to more fully understand the pitfalls her character tries to avoid in assessing her place in her world. Fincher provides the play's emotional center-which remains evident in Ekas' scenes as her younger self-and though she struggles with depression, somehow she remains grounded and thereby totally accessible.

Allison Cutler, small and flighty (her pairing by Clarke with the towering Lane Wright as her loving, but flummoxed, husband is an onstage delight), is perfectly cast as grandmother June, delivering an amazingly modulated performance as she interprets June's struggle with bipolar disorder and its affects on those surrounding her. Cutler is able to capture the manic/depressive nature of her character with such grace, coupled with a sense of what might best be described as joie de vivre, that you find yourself wanting to envelop June in a comforting, all-encompassing hug (much like her husband Harry is wont to do so often). Her anguish is palpable, and the realization that she has slipped her tether to reality is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching.

Wright looks for all the world like an early 1960s businessman (think Ward Cleaver coming home to a June who leaves all the sugar out of The Beaver's birthday cake), yet he shows far more emotion-and expresses the impact of his wife's mental illness so evocatively-than you'd have ever seen in an idealized picture of middle-class suburbia.

Holly Butler shows off her range as Marion, Janey's mom and June's daughter, portraying her with a strident maternal ferocity one moment, and with childish self-absorption the next. Joyce Jeffries makes the most of her pair of roles she plays Janey's therapist and psychic with equal self-confidence and assured command of the stage. Eric Ventress is fine as Janey's boyfriend Denys (that "y" may be the only thing that denotes this play's Canadian genesis), though he is hampered by Fawcett's dialogue for him, which strikes the only false notes in the work, making the usually self-assured Ventress seem awkward and ill-at-ease.

Clarke's steady directorial hand is evident throughout the production and she should be commended for her casting of the roles in The Disappearance of Janey Jones, which ensures the play's ultimate success.

Kristin James' set design provides the right backdrop for the onstage action, while Katie Gant's lighting design focuses your attention perfectly, while highlighting the dramatic implications of what's happening.

The Disappearance of Janey Jones. By Jennifer Fawcett. Directed by Maryanna Clarke. Presented by Tennessee Women's Theater Project at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through March 11. For details, go to www.twtp.org or call (615) 681-7220.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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