As a tardy replacement for Theatre Quorum's previously announced second production this season (they ran into casting problems with a Marsha Norman script), Joe Egg is a peculiar selection. Almost everyone has heard of Peter Nichols' 1967 script--though perhaps not with its original title, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg--but very few people have seen it produced. The show is somewhat lopsided in form: The first act is conversational, almost improvisatory, the second a rigidly revolving series of opinionated talking heads. Joe Egg also is definitely troubled (and troublesome) in content; it concerns the emotional exhaustion of parents whose daughter is epileptic and catatonic, a virtual vegetable, by their admission, until she slides into a seizure.
We know that comedy and tragedy are drawn from the same wellspring of human experience, but Joe Egg is nonetheless daring and rather difficult in the way it mixes these flavors in the same spoonful. Much like the nihilistic humor of morgue attendants and crime reporters shocks those who don't understand how complex coping mechanisms can get, the way these parents josh about their child's condition (quite cruelly, at times) rattles us in our seats. They are punch-drunk, battle-weary, giggling grimly as they stagger along on an endless march. They are, in short, the kind of numbed survivors folks generally don't want to fork over ticket money to spend an evening with.
This brings me to the biggest problem with the script, other than its disparate and jarring halves. Is it possible to fashion theater that is satisfying or at least illuminating from a tragedy that has no climax, from a character whose negation sucks in all the energy and humor and despair of the two leads and returns not a drop of it to them (or us)? I'm not suggesting the subject matter is unworthy: Talk to anyone who has tethered their life to offspring with severe mental or physical handicaps, and you'll get a lesson in existential sadness that Sartre could learn from. But after initially startling us with his unconventional methods, Nichols has not found a theatrical solution to overcome a problem that has no answer.
Luckily, Theatre Quorum and veteran Dallas director Cynthia Hestand have found Nichols, and managed to put an assured and refreshingly light-footed rhythm in Joe Egg's stride. The title character is actually 12-year-old Josephine (Brooks Dennard), who spends the entire play in a wheelchair, unresponsive, occasionally drooling, her head lolling from one side to the other. Her parents have adopted divergent attitudes. Father Brian (Carl Savering) is snide and grimacing as he tosses out ironic comments about Josephine's hyperactive energy, while mother Sheila (Angela Wilson) seems almost to blur in front of us, soft-voiced and dreamy and lost to her own emotions.
The first act is by far the more effective. It's a two-person affair in which Savering and Wilson, who co-founded Theatre Quorum, address each other and us and play a myriad of characters who have had something ignorant or callous to say since Joe was born. As we've come to expect, Savering fires his dialogue like a marksman with a pistol, effortlessly bagging all the emotions at which he aims. Wilson has not always been so confident in front of an audience, but she turns in her best stage work to date (as actor, not playwright) with an interpretation of Sheila that performers of greater polish might overlook. Other players might wring their hands and knot their brows till they bruised themselves, to communicate this woman's lifetime of blues. I like the disconnect, the distraction, director Hestand has helped her develop here, the look and talk of constantly waking (or hoping she'll wake) from a dream.
After intermission, unfortunately, friends and family invade the claustrophobia of Joe Egg's world, and the result is schematic. This is not the fault of the actors. Mary Anna Austin as Pam, a bracingly cold-blooded socialite with a monologue about euthanasia that'll peel the upper dermis off your arms, turns in superior work, as does Terry McCracken, an Englishwoman among American actors who plays Brian's meddling mother and manages to make grief and sympathy noxious qualities. I wish they had been woven more organically into Joe Egg. As it is, they feel thrown together in one room to cover the same territory that Wilson and Savering already conquered in the first act. This quartet, and director Cynthia Hestand's requisite mastery of material, makes the show worth your while despite itself. Don't expect to be educated, and definitely don't come with a thirst for traditional entertainment. But if the thought of dangling for two hours over curious and compelling scenarios turns you on, then Theatre Quorum will hand you just enough rope to stay up.
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