Patrons of the Jewel Theatre Company may fondly recall its last production of a new play by Santa Cruz author Kate Hawley back in 2015. That excellent play, Complications From a Fall, is a kind of companion piece to Hawley’s newest work, Coming of Age, “a serious comedy” now having its world premiere at JTC. Both plays deal with the theme of aging parents and their effect on the lives of their middle-aged children.
Hawley is particularly incisive in exploring the radical idea that parents may have once had—or continue to have—separate and interesting lives outside the box into which their children have always confined them. In Complications, a pair of bickering siblings, one uptight, the other footloose, divvy up the duties of caring for their recently bedridden mother, then discover explosive family secrets their mom reveals only to her beloved hired caregiver.
The themes are serious in both plays, but Coming of Age is less overtly comic than its predecessor, although it still has plenty of witty dialogue—as befits characters from the worlds of academia and literature. Protagonist, Ian (Mike Ryan), is an author of literary novels. After a book tour, he drops in to the family home in upstate New York to visit his recently widowed father, John (J. Michael Flynn), an acclaimed university professor (now retired) and Dickens biographer, who cast a long shadow over Ian’s youth.
Ian doesn’t exactly drop in; they’ve been setting up his visit for weeks, although John is surprised to see him, and doesn’t seem too eager to have his son stick around. Ian finds out why with the arrival of Deirdre (Martha Brigham), with her arms full of groceries, and an intimate knowledge of how to find her way around the house. Once a bedazzled student of John’s, nearly 40 years younger than he is, Deirdre has become a fixture in the household. As discreet as she is in person, her presence chips new fissures into the already tense father-son relationship.
The first act is a bit slow-going, setting up this plot, but director Paul Whitworth keeps the action unobtrusively fluid while the characters talk—tables are cleared, objects are stowed, drinks are poured (a lot of comic mileage is gotten out of a cocktail shaker), and served (finally). It’s in the dynamic second half that Hawley’s focus becomes sharper: all of these characters get their one-on-one encounters and their chance to make sense of their own feelings and motivations in Hawley’s simple, eloquent dialogue. This half also features a lovely interlude in which John’s beloved late wife, Ian’s mother (played with tart, wistful aplomb by Nancy Carlin), returns for a few potent observations.
As usual with JTC, the tech work is first class. Scenic Designer Kent Dorsey’s set is outstanding, a Craftsman interior full of books and Stickley-style furniture, with Art Nouveau stained glass panels around the door (you will want to live here!). Doorways and one slyly visible passage accommodate the action. B. Modern’s costumes are tuned into each character’s psyche, from John’s professorial tweed jacket, to the flannel shirt Deirdre wears in the last scene, whose dark teal and dusty rose plaid subtly reflects the color scheme of the rooms.
The cast is terrific, especially Flynn: his portrait of John as a cranky oldster betrayed by time is tempered by flashes of the magnificent lion he must have once been. Ryan is entertaining as Ian, muscling through in a state of agitation in search of grace, and Brigham brings composed, savvy presence to Deirdre, persuasively resisting the perception that she’s some kind of golddigger.
Having once had her own literary aspirations, Deirdre refers to her first effort as “my coming-of-rage novel.” This might not be a bad title for the play, except that it’s not rage that fuels Hawley’s intriguing drama—it’s insight.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of ‘Coming of Age’ plays through April 8 at the Colligan Theatre at the Tannery. 425-7506, or JewelTheatre.net.