Since there aren't many coming-out stories about lesbians in Hoboken, New Jersey, it's easy to imagine why the folks at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville sat up and took notice in 1994 when Wendy Hammond sent in the script for Julie Johnson. What made them choose to produce it is harder to fathom.
The drama, a new production of which is being staged at the Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood, traces the self-discovery of a woman (Kimberly Ehly) with two kids and an abusive husband; she realizes her life needs to expand. And expand it does, as the feisty main character goes back to school, gives up smoking, throws out her husband, and declares her love for another woman. What the work never does, however, is develop into a full-fledged play. It takes more than a catchy concept for that to happen.
At the FPT, where the show is helmed by artistic director Paul Thomas, Julie Johnson unwinds on a two-ply set. One end of the stage depicts Julie's living room. As the play opens, her two kids (Ashley O'Connor and Nicolae Popescu) come home from school and find her crying and immobile on the floor. As she explains to best-friend-next-door Claire (Julie Dawn Francis), she doesn't "want to be stupid no more." Her quest for higher education leads her to the other end of the stage, the office of Mr. Miranda (Andre Todd Bruni). He is the science teacher in whose class Julie enrolls herself and Claire in a quest to leave the confines of her working-class universe, where women marry and reproduce at a higher rate than they get their high school diplomas.
The main triumph of the FPT production is that it manages to overcome the obstacles presented by its oblong storefront space, which has the aspect ratio of a Cinemascope movie screen. You can't take in the entire stage in one look, so Thomas divides it into two performance areas, the better to delineate Julie's life. The problem with Julie Johnson, however, is that it needs a dramaturg more than it needs an inventive stage designer. And the performances, which range from spirited to awful in this production, are beside the point.
Julie Johnson takes stabs at momentous themes, ranging from the narrow expectations of some working-class women and the very real dangers of domestic violence to the politics of declaring oneself a lesbian. The play is overloaded with weighty issues that would be a challenge to the most experienced writer. But what plagues this drama is not so much that it's overambitious, but that Julie's story seems more like a sketch for a play than a story itself. It has no dramatic punctuation. Rather, all of Julie's achievements arrive in the same exhilarating rush of activity. Her ability to quit smoking, for example, is given nearly as much weight as her falling in love.
What's missing are the idiosyncratic details that could make Julie and her family individuals instead of just ideas for characters. The idea is that Julie is trapped and desperate in her dead-end life but is also inspired by an urge to escape. When her husband hits her yet again, she throws his clothes out the window. (In the one iota of suspense, we never see Julie's abusive husband; he's only an angry knock on the front door.) She then realizes she has no skills with which to support her family. That's a provocative theme, given its implications for abused women with no work experience, but we never see Julie solve this problem.
She's off and running to the next confrontation -- her sexual attraction to her best friend, Claire. Courtesy of the convenience of shallow melodrama, Claire also happens to like women. The two indulge their relationship, then move on to the next crisis. Nothing about Julie's discovery of her sexual orientation is unique.
Hammond's one good idea was to explore the life of a woman who lives in a specific time and place and has to struggle to find herself within those boundaries. But beyond the skeletal information that she lives in Hoboken in the early Nineties -- and that she secretly buys Omni and Discovery magazines while grocery shopping -- we never glean anything else about Julie that makes her an individual. By no coincidence, she remains as generic and unimagined as the title of the play. FPT, which bravely takes chances on new and underproduced plays, has unfortunately hit a dud with this one.
Speaking of new works, this year's edition of Summer Shorts, which featured Florida premieres of fifteen tiny plays, deserves kudos, particularly for its gifted cast and directors. The rep company was consistently strong. I want to single out Elizabeth Dimon, specifically for her work in Untamed, in which she played Kate, the now-middle-aged heroine of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, wonderfully updated by Richard Hellesen. She also shone as the focus of Airborne, Gib Johnson's play about an airline ticket agent who takes it upon herself to change people's travel destinations in accordance with their spiritual needs.
Equally strong was Nell Gwynn as a desperate urban dweller in Jose Rivera's unsettling A Tiger in Central Park. She was also a bereaved daughter in Susan Westfall's moving With the Patience of Angels and a woman who's lost her sister in Don Nigro's haunting Sin Eater, plus several other roles.
The line reading I'll never forget, however, came in the last moments of Elaine Romero's uneven drama If Susan Smith Could Talk, a play that delves into the psyche of the real-life racist child-murderer who drowned her own kids in South Carolina. Gwynn as Smith, about to burst out of profound grief and despair, begs her captors: "Put a pin in me so that I can pop."
In a lighter vein, here's a tip of the hat to Jerry Clicquot, who, as did his colleagues, played multiple roles, but none quite as remarkable as that of the title beast in A Tiger in Central Park. Wearing no costume other than a tiger-stripe T-shirt and a ferocious attitude, he made me believe he actually had fangs. Grrrrrrrr.
And speaking of larger-than-life theater beasts, if you're a theatergoer in search of nourishing summer reading, let me give you a nudge in the direction of Threads of Time, the new memoir by the great Peter Brook. The erstwhile Royal Shakespeare Company director and long-time theater genius's last head-turning production was the mid-Eighties marathon Mahabarata. Now he writes about his early years and influences, as well as his brilliant career in Covent Garden, Stratford-on-Avon, and the West End, where he directed the likes of Paul Scofield, Laurence Olivier, and Jeanne Moreau.
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Brook experienced (or in fact caused) so many highlights of twentieth-century theater that his story would be great reading even if he merely recited it. Fortunately for us, he's also a gifted writer and storyteller. Below is a typical excerpt, in which he describes the effect of his friendship with the infamous conjurer Aleister Crowley. (It's thrilling to be reminded that Crowley was once a living, breathing person and not just a curiosity whose legend is currently getting a mediocre resurrection from new-age acolytes.)
"When I did my first production in London, Doctor Faustus," Brook writes, "[Crowley] agreed to be magical adviser and came to a rehearsal, having first made me promise that no one should know who he was, as he just wanted to watch unseen from the back of the stalls. But when Faust began his incantation, it was too much for [Crowley] and he was on his feet, roaring impressively, 'No! No, no! You need a bowl of bull's blood. That'll bring real spirits, I promise you!' Then he added with a broad wink, 'Even at a matinee.'"
Brook goes on to write, "[Crowley] had demystified himself, and we laughed together." You'll laugh too if you're lucky enough to find this book in your hands.
Written by Wendy Hammond; directed by Paul Johnson; with Kimberly Ehly, Julie Dawn Francis, Ashley O'Connor, Nicolae Popescu, and Andre Todd Bruni. Through July 12. Florida Playwrights' Theater, 1936 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood; 954-925-8123.