Woman on the Verge

arts-2-harper-regan-reviewJTC cast excels in new play ‘Harper Regan’

Now celebrating its 10th productive season in the heart of Santa Cruz, Jewel Theatre Company has established its reputation for innovative programming and creative professionalism. (Especially given the tiny size of its venue, Center Stage.) At JTC, vintage work by Shaw and Coward is presented alongside often complex and lesser-known pieces by such modern masters as Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard, Athol Fugard, and Joe Orton. In addition, Artistic Director Julie James is always scouting out new authors and playwrights to produce at JTC.

One such playwright is Simon Stephens, an astonishingly prolific Manchester-born Brit whose more than two dozen plays have won numerous awards. (His stage adaptation of the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2013.) Stephens’ 2007 play, Harper Regan, is the current offering at JTC, and it’s not difficult to see why James chose it. The title character, a woman at a transition point in her life, is a varied and evolving role for an actress, and many other small parts in the series of vignettes that pass for a plot show off the excellent acting company to advantage.

Essentially one woman’s journey out of her comfort zone and into self-awareness, the play begins with the eponymous Harper (James) asking for time off to go home to Manchester to visit her dying father. After ranting about porn, addiction, violence, the Internet, and “the amorality of the young,” her boss (a fittingly pompous Chad Davies) says no. But after an odd exchange with a teenage boy in the park (an effective Nat Robinson), and a close encounter with a masonry brick falling from on high, Harper decides to go anyway—without a word to her genial, strangely unemployable husband Seth (Stephen Muterspaugh), and their spunky college student daughter Sarah (Marissa Keltie).

Harper’s odyssey takes her from the hospital to a bar, where she meets Mickey (played with nasty pizzazz by Patrick Edwards), and on to an impromptu tryst with a lonely married stranger. Michael Shipley is touching in the role, but the scene doesn’t make a lot of organic sense; it feels like the usual cliché when a playwright wants to underline a heroine’s awakening. Ultimately, Harper must face her nemesis—the mother, Alison (Karel K. Wright), who divorced her beloved dad.

A drawback to the selection of this particular play might be its very Britishness. The cast navigates the characters’ working-class Northern accents with complete dexterity; no dialogue is lost in translation. But despite Bill Peters’ clear, uncluttered direction, the wry drollery of Stephens’ tone doesn’t always come across. In some of the more darkly absurdist moments at the performance I saw, the audience was unsure whether to laugh.

Some of the play’s touching moments don’t quite resonate either, often because Stephens sets them within such peculiar encounters. It’s sort of sweet when a stranger, her stepdad’s apprentice (Taras Wybaczynsky Jr.), offers condolences on her father, but it comes out of nowhere in the middle of Harper’s confrontation with her mum. And it’s hard to figure out what’s going on with Harper’s increasingly delusional husband.

But relationships between women are handled much better. Keltie is splendid as daughter Sarah, injecting sass, lively energy, and affection into her scenes. And while Alison is presented from Harper’s viewpoint as the villain early on, once she comes onstage, and she and Harper painfully deconstruct the essence of their longstanding feud, Wright soars in the role, dispensing grace, regret, and a kind of closure.

The resourceful JTC production team comes through with its usual flying colors. Co-set designers Peters and Austin Kottkamp, Lighting Designer Mark Hopkins, and Sound and Projection designer Davis Banta conspire on the clever layers of mesh scrims and rear-projected screen that differentiate each setting, from downtown office to riverside to hospital corridor. Great things are expected from this crew when they get to move into their fancy new digs at The Tannery next year.

The JTC production of Harper Regan plays Thursday-Sunday through March 22 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Call 425-7506, or visit PHOTO: Julie James and Patrick Edwards in Jewel Theatre’s ‘Harper Regan.’ STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO

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