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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Janice (Amy Staats) is a single, thirty-two year old visual artist who has just lost her job and may not be able to continue paying the rent on her apartment. But that's not the real reason she feels she is not only underwater but also under siege. Tormented by the fear she may have inherited the genes that bring on mental illness, she finds herself recklessly testing the boundaries of rational behavior.
Tom Matthew Wolfe has written an absorbing play that poses many complex predicaments for its unstrung heroine. It also provides some provocative insights into the way we cope with mental illness.
Janice is almost used to her recurring visions and the protracted visitations by her paranoid schizophrenic mother Theresa (Susan Louise O'Conner) whom she hasn't seen in twenty years. She is also contending with her feelings of guilt for not being attentive enough to her sixty-year-old Alzheimer-afflicted father Michael (Daren Kelly), a retired policeman. Her sense of guilt also extends to not sharing part of the burden of taking care of her father with her brother Jimmy (Ryan Barry), a police officer who has remained living the lonely life in the family home that had (we are told) been set afire by Theresa who no longer lives there.
But what is it that is driving Janice to unrealistically pursue a relationship with Paul (Eddie Boroevich), the superintendent of her building, an Iraq War veteran whom we can see is suffering from severe depression and symptoms related to PTSD? The answer to that last question is at the heart of Wolfe's issue-focused but essentially character-driven play in which we see how the often irrational, anxiety-driven Janice decide to take the genetic test that will confirm or deny her being a candidate for mental illness.
Thoughtfully written to give us a dramatically balanced portrait of a woman on the verge , Janice Underwater is also braced by the vision of its director Jade King Carroll. The play moves through its part-real, part surreal trajectory with some nicely candid episodes, including some sexual activity. Her impulsive, emotionally volatile and clearly neurotic behavior gives every indication that she is at the very least bi-polar.
Wolfe's characters, even those who have a peripheral presence, may all be in need of help emotionally, but they are well-defined. Each becomes a formidable catalyst for Janice as she attempts to reevaluate herself at the same time reintegrate back into the lives of family members with whom she has been partially estranged.
Janice Underwater, the winner won from among the four hundred plays submitted to the 2014 Premiere Stages Play Festival, has a lot to say about responsibility, the value of family, and the maturity and love it takes to cope with mental illness. It affords the audience a chance to laugh as well as empathize with the plights of each of the characters, each one acted with sensitivity.
Staats is very convincing as Janice, a woman in turmoil, but also in step to the beat of her own drummer. Her impetuous seduction of Paul, the reluctant superintendent, is one of the play's more humorously engaging scenes. As the mostly morose Paul, Boroevich is touching as the good-looking super whose reclusive life is unexpectedly renewed with unexpected results. And Kelly makes the father's blustery outbursts quite poignant.
With the play set in Hillside, New Jersey, (the playwright's home town) it is good to hear the supporting cast capture the flavor of New Jersey-speak. The setting, mostly moving panels and platforms, and the eerie projections have been designed by Caite Hevner Kemp. They are effective in keeping up with Janice in her personal quest and inquest. There are also comfortable new seats in the theater.
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