Friday, November 7, 2003

Choosing life: Internal control vs. intimacy and trust

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Writers can live solitary lives, enjoying more the fruits of their imaginings than the actual ups and downs of life. Thus is Jake (Hugh J. Barton), in Neil Simon’s poignant, funny play Jake’s Women. Simon gives us a view into his own writerly world, and the challenges of coming down from his writing world into the real one, where he must surrender control to others and to the universe.

In a series of imagined and real conversations, Jake confers with the women in his life — his sister, his analyst, his first wife (killed in a car accident 10 years ago), and his daughter at two different points in her life. His second wife, Maggie (Lisa Kristoff) appears both in reality and imagination, while a literal-minded girlfriend (Sheila, played by Sandi Panati) is just a reality.

The characters are hilarious, and well played, especially Karen (Shirley Bernier), Jake’s popcorn-crunching sister, who appears in wildly garish costumes — as she is imagined by Jake.

Jake’s marriage to Maggie is in crisis. She feels trapped by her life, and needs to escape. Jake, for his part, is just trying to get "from there to here" and may need to go by way of Calcutta or Hong Kong.

The audience serves as another imaginary interlocutor for Jake, who has periodic asides demonstrating the actual level of self-awareness he possesses. The imagined conversations also contain humorous reminders to Jake — from himself — that he’s creating both sides of the dialogue. "My mind has a mind of its own," he says at one point.

As the play progresses, Jake’s internal dialogue appears more and more, and begins to influence his relationships with real people.

The causes and consequences of his choices in life become clear as he explores himself, prodded by his loved ones’ voices in his head. His daughter, Molly, appears both as an innocent 12-year-old girl (Diana Bernier Siegler) and a grown-up woman (Natasha Bernier Siegler) attending the college Jake thought his first wife dreamed of. (Not so, we learn in a funny aside.)

Maggie, too, finds her voice and through a passing night of infidelity reaches her own rock bottom and begins to rebuild herself, her way.

The pair are great at interacting both awkwardly and lovingly as the plot requires, and their emotions are palpable even from the seats. The other characters also fit in well, except the older Molly, who is flat at key moments.

The play is very funny, with lines explaining why people need psychiatrists if all we do is pop pills to feel better, but also sentimental, reminding us of loved ones we have lost and can only revisit in our memories.

Jake struggles mightily for his sanity. He begins to lose control of the one life he has total dominion over — the one in his mind. And Maggie challenges him to surrender control over his flesh-and-blood life, too, asking him to trust people and become emotionally intimate.

Simon probes deeply into Jake’s independence, and director Jim Colby demands a lot of actor Barton. At times, Barton can seem overwrought, carrying emotions too long in their moments, but he bridges well Jake’s gap between the writer-observer and the life-liver.

Maggie, too, wrestles powerfully with her own emotions, deciding whether she can truly love Jake or must leave his insane world to reclaim her own heart and mind.

Jake must create a vision of his own ideal, controlling the conversation and then surrendering to its momentum. It is then that he sees the potential in human emotion and begins to truly feel with his heart.

When the voices come back, Jake sends them away in favor of real love, a non-ideal, often out-of-control situation in which trust and hard work are required.

Jake’s Women
By Neil Simon. Directed by James Colby. With Hugh J. Barton, Lisa Kristoff, and Amanda Smith. At Studio Theatre of Bath, through Nov. 16. Call (207) 443-2418.


Mad Horse Theater Company has extended the run of The Mercy Seat, its season opener, through November 9. It’s at the Portland Stage Studio Theater. Call (207) 730-2389 for information.

• The Theater Project in Brunswick is having a new-plays festival this weekend, November 7, 8, and 9. First up, November 7 at 7:30 p.m., will be The Bridge, by USM theater teacher Thomas A. Power, about a small-island lawyer who becomes the owner of a large, valuable piece of waterfront property. Next, November 8, at 7:30 p.m., will be Shooting Dreams, also by a USM theater teacher, William Steele, about a deer overpopulation problem on a Maine island. And November 9, at 2 p.m., will be a double-header, Warm Ashes by New Mexico playwright Robert F. Benjamin, a comedic drama about aging and the meaning of life, and H.R. Coursen’s adaptation of Hippolytus by Euripedes. The events are all pay-what-you-can. For reservations, call (207) 729-8584.