Sharp writing and great cast highlight ‘Complications From a Fall’
For the fourth production of its Tenth Anniversary season, Jewel Theatre Company has plucked out a plum. Santa Cruz’s own Kate Hawley bestows a gift on JTC and its lucky patrons with her new play, Complications From A Fall. This is the World Premiere of Hawley’s play—a witty, often breezy comedy about a very serious subject—aging parents, and the grown children reluctantly deputized to care for them.
The play has everything to recommend it to theatre companies large and small. It can be staged on a single set (with a few inventive flourishes, like those dreamed up for the JTC production by director Paul Whitworth). The cast is small, consisting of four terrific acting parts. And the subject matter is universal—parent-child relationships, sibling friction, family secrets, and memories lost and found. Hawley skillfully mines this material for plenty of life-sized humor, without resorting to farce, or cheapening the drama of the situation.
The story begins with an agitated Helen (JTC Artistic Director Julie James), a spinsterish university professor, fuming, in the house of her elderly, bedridden mother. She’s awaiting the arrival of her younger brother, Teddy (Mike Ryan), a scruffy musician in an obscure rock band that’s perpetually on the road. Helen has been their mother’s caretaker since the older woman took a fall a while back, but she has a scholarly conference to attend in Denver (she’s delivering a paper on Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen), so Teddy has to come home for a few days to help out.
Helen is ferociously organized and responsible, resentful of her brother’s footloose lifestyle, and resistant to his attempts to joke around—especially since he shows up a day late. Teddy is terrified to enter the world of adult diapers, sponge baths, and strictly scheduled medications. All of this is crisply conveyed in the opening scene, with Helen making little attempt to hide her disapproval, and Teddy determined to make the best of the situation. (While Ryan makes a deft comic prop out of Teddy’s hoodie.)
All this time, their mother, Elizabeth (Nada Rowand), is sleeping in the next room. (In Kate Edmunds’ smart set design, both “rooms” share the stage with an invisible wall between them; the surrounding walls are covered with the handwritten script of old letters.) Teddy faces his first hurdle when his mom wakes up; she recognizes him as her beloved son, but keeps calling for the previous hired caregiver, Lucy. His sister has told Teddy she let Lucy go because pieces of their mother’s jewelry kept disappearing, but Mom becomes so distressed, Teddy calls Lucy (an engaging Audrey Rumsby) for back-up.
Teddy is surprised by the playfulness of Lucy’s relationship with his mother, laughing and singing old songs together. Mom keeps mistaking Lucy for her old college roommate, and Lucy makes no effort to correct her. Unlike Helen, who believes they should keep their mother firmly rooted in the present, Lucy feels that if she’s happier in the past, she should be allowed to stay there. It’s when Teddy discovers a box of his mom’s old photos and mementos under the bed that Elizabeth’s past quietly leaks into the family’s present lives.
As a 7-year-old war refugee from England, Elizabeth was separated from her own mother and sent to live with a family of strangers in the States. (“They were Lutherans,” is about all the elder Elizabeth has to say about that.) After her own mother died back home, she stayed on in post-war America. Lucy tells Teddy she’s so fond of his mother because she also lost her mother at a young age.
As the bond of affection and tolerance grows between Lucy, Elizabeth and Teddy, Helen checks in periodically from Denver (spotlighted at the edges of the tiny JTC stage). Temporarily freed from her duties, she gushes over a Norwegian scholar named Olaf, delivers a hilariously pompous and entirely specious address on Ibsen, and sings karaoke. These interludes are sharply written, and James gets plenty of comic mileage out of them.
Rowand is great as the often infuriating, yet beguiling Elizabeth. Everything works, from B. Modern’s effective costumes to the wartime-era pop songs that play between scenes in this thoughtful and entertaining production.
The JTC production of ‘Complications From A Fall’ plays through May 17 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Call 425-7506 for info, or visit jeweltheatre.net