Jewel Theatre Company closes season with bittersweet comedy ‘Woman in Mind’
Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre Company is the little company that could. Artistic Director Julie James works miracles with limited resources, mounting ambitious professional theater in tiny local spaces like Center Stage, where JTC has been the resident company for the last five years. James’ eagerness to tackle everything from Beckett to Sondheim to Athol Fugard, from musicals to West Coast and World premieres, makes her company consistently worth watching.
For the finale of JTC’s Tenth Anniversary season, James presents Woman In Mind, a bittersweet comedy of disillusion by popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. First produced in 1985, the play starts off as a jaunty comedy about a midlife suburban woman confusing her fantasy of perfect family life with the far more mundane reality. Ayckbourn’s play quietly evolves into something much more poignant, and this production, directed by James herself, strikes both its sad and funny highlights with effective precision.
The story begins with protagonist, Susan (Diahanna Davidson), prone in her modest garden with a strange man kneeling over her, spouting gibberish. It turns out she has just performed the classic slapstick comedy maneuver: stepped on a garden rake and smacked herself in the head—a short trip to oblivion from which she is now just waking up. The man is a medical doctor, Bill Windsor (Shaun Carroll), who’s just summoned an ambulance, his nonsense words finally resolving into ordinary English that Susan was mishearing in her delirious state.
It’s daring to start off with a scene so disorienting to the audience, and Ayckbourn wisely sticks to Susan’s increasingly suspect and fractured perspective for the rest of the play. As soon as Bill goes back in the house, the drab brick wall of Susan’s yard becomes a gateway to an extravagant English garden, full of mazes and hedgerows. (Kudos to Set Designer Kent Dorsey and Lighting Designer Mark Hopkins.)
Through this gateway pour Susan’s doting husband Andy (David Arrow), adoring daughter Lucy (Danielle Crook), and devoted younger brother Tony (Jimmy Allan). They seem to have wandered in out of a 1930s Noel Coward play, in their sporty white outfits (costumes by the great B. Modern), wielding tennis rackets and glasses of vintage “champers.” The giddy Susan assures them all that she’s perfectly fine.
Except that she’s not. We know something is up as soon as the somewhat bumbling, but good-hearted Bill comes back out and makes reference to family members Susan at first doesn’t acknowledge. Her real-life family, as we soon learn, led by stodgy husband, Gerald (Chad Davies), an Anglican clergyman who neglects her for the book he’s writing about the history of the parish since 1386. Then there’s frazzled Muriel (the ever-stalwart Diana Torres-Koss), the widowed sister to whom Gerald is devoted, whose culinary attempts have everyone quaking in fear. Aimless son, Rick (Nat Robinson), has joined a cult that forbids him to speak to his parents.
There are plenty of laughs as these two worlds begin to collide (including a comic Q&A expertly lobbed by Davidson and Carroll, with the recurring punchline “since 1386,” including how long Gerald has been working on his book). Arrow, Allan and Crook are all hilariously suave and arch as the fantasy family, and Davies maintains a vague, melancholy dignity as poor, plodding Gerald.
But this production doesn’t really get going until the second act, coming together at last, even as its heroine unravels. It’s not simply that Susan retreats into idle romantic nonsense; the process by which she’s become disengaged with her life has been involuntary and devastating. Once content as a wife and mother, she feels abandoned now that no one needs her anymore. In her prickly conversation with son Rick, we see how they wound and infuriate each other, despite their best intentions. Finally, even her perfect alternate family starts to get on her nerves.
Davidson’s Susan is onstage throughout, and her sharp yet aching performance helps JTC end is 10th season on a high note of dramatic complexity.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of Woman In Mind plays through June 28 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz, 425-7506, jeweltheatre.net. PHOTO: Diahanna Davidson and Shaun Carroll in ‘Woman in Mind.’ STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO