Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Stage Left Theatre)

| January 21, 2014
Piper Bailey stars in Stage Left Theatre's "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, directed by Greg Werstler. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)        
      
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Written by Peter Nichols
Directed by Greg Werstler
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 16  |  tickets: $20-$27   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Heavy but rewarding

     

Annie Prichard and Brian Plocharcyzk in Day in the Life of Joe Egg, Stage LeftStage Left Theatre's "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, directed by Greg Werstler. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)

    
Stage Left Theatre presents
    
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Review by Lauren Whalen 

Picture this: you’ve given birth to a vegetable. At least, that’s what the doctor calls your little girl. As she grows, she’s confined to a wheelchair, largely unresponsive and unable to communicate, save a grunt here and there. At age 10, she wears diapers. Her life expectancy may be short, but for now, she keeps on living – and you will be taking care of her until one of you dies. For now, she has seizures and scares – but she just keeps on living. For married couple Brian and Sheila, this is their reality. And in Stage Left’s superior production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, we get an up close and personal look at how they deal with it.

Marssie Mencotti in Stage Left Theatre's "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, directed by Greg Werstler. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)According to the press kit, Joe Egg is based on playwright Peter Nichols’ real-life experience co-parenting a daughter with cerebral palsy. She was 5 years old when the play premiered with much controversy in 1967, and died at the age of 10. Nichols and his wife grew so accustomed to explaining their daughter’s condition – and later, her death – that their words and gestures became a routine of sorts. Indeed, the life of schoolteacher Brian (Vance Smith) and stay-at-home mother Sheila (Kendra Thulin) is at once monotonous and frighteningly unpredictable. Each day, 10-year-old Joe (Piper Bailey) is hauled off to daycare, each night she returns home, sometimes with a soiled diaper, as Brian and Sheila banter with each other and the audience, hover over Joe, and do their best to escape – Sheila through community theater, Brian through escape fantasies. They love Joe, of course, and dote on her, sometimes making up things for her to say. But their burden doesn’t cease, and tears are never far behind the laughter.

Joe Egg (the title comes from the daughter’s name, short for Josephine, and an old expression “sitting around like Joe Egg,” meaning inactivity) is theatrical in nature: each main character aside from Joe regularly addresses the audience. Brian and Sheila delight in reenacting Joe’s birth and diagnosis with broad gestures and loud voices – because what else are they supposed to do, cry all day and night? When their clueless friends Freddie (Brian Plocharczyk) and Pam (Annie Prichard) suggest sending the girl away, the couple grows both resigned (they’ve tried – Joe doesn’t react well to institutionalized care) and defensive (Brian and Pam have three healthy, perfect children – they have no idea). And Brian’s mother (Marssie Mencotti, a picture-perfect doting biddy) continues to spoil her son, hinting that Sheila’s promiscuous past may have contributed to Joe’s doomed future.

Vance Smith and Kendra Thulin in Stage Left Theatre's "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, directed by Greg Werstler. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)

Nichols’ writing is vivid and authentic: though the play is presentational, I felt as if I were sitting in Brian and Sheila’s living room. The playwright doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable humor; rather, he delights in it. There’s respect for the heavy subject matter, and for the characters’ coping mechanisms as well. Joe Egg is both dialogue-heavy (no set changes and very little action) and rather long, clocking in at two and a half hours. Most of the first act is anecdotal set-up, and three characters don’t even appear until Act II. Though not much would be lost by cutting about half an hour, director Greg Werstler keeps up an admirable pace. Katherine Arfken’s set design feels late-‘60’s accurate, with droopy Christmas decorations adding a layer of sadness.

With its layered characters, witty dialogue and tough subject matter, Joe Egg is a serious actor’s dream, and Werstler’s ensemble is solid. Thulin (one of the few bright spots of last year’s disappointing Luther) is reminiscent of Brenda Barrie in her quivering delivery and complex emotion. Plocharczyk, Prichard and Mancotti all provide cutting comic relief. Bailey is a natural little actress, impressively adept in her nonverbal, nearly nonphysical role. But the real star of the piece is Smith. Stage Left’s intelligent Artistic Director also shines as an actor, and his Brian is spot-on: a man-boy hybrid who might never have been a good father, even to an able-bodied child, and who may be more self-aware than he seems.

Simple and devastating, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg may drag in a few places, but is well worth the trip to Theater Wit. Most of us will never experience what Brian and Sheila do – and hopefully in 2014, couples in their position have more options and resources at their disposal. However, this darkly humorous story takes the audience to the depths of despair, a purgatory where giggles can help, but not cure.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg continues through February 16th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$27, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at StageLeftTheatre.com(Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)

Vance Smith and Kendra Thulin in Stage Left Theatre's "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, directed by Greg Werstler. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)

Photos by Johnny Knight 


     

artists

cast

Vance Smith (Brian), Kendra Thulin (Sheila), Brian Plocharczyk (Freddie), Annie Prichard (Pam), Marssie Mencotti (Grace), Piper Bailey (Joe).

behind the scenes

Greg Werstler (director), Tara Malpass (stage manager), Kristin Steele (production manager), Katherine Arfken (scenic designer), Julian Pike (lighting designer), Rachel Parent (costume designer), Jeffrey Levin (sound designer), Cassy Schillo (properties master), Rick Julien (technical director), Jason A. Fleece (dialect coach), Skye Robinson Hills (dramaturg), Johnny Knight (promotional photography), Seamstudios.com (graphic design), Katie Horwitz (assistant director), Vance Smith (producers, artistic director).

Kendra Thulin and Vance Smith in Stage Left Theatre's "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, directed by Greg Werstler. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, Lauren Whalen, Stage Left Theatre, Theater Wit

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