Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a provocative play, disturbingly frank in its portrayal of a couple’s experience raising a daughter with cerebral palsy. Nichols is unflinching in his depiction of Bri (Randy Schmeling) and Sheila (Mary Fox) and the emotional strain of parenting a child with severe disabilities. Bri’s humor is dark, a carnival of sublimated grief and despair. Sheila is relentlessly optimistic and unconditionally loving. Initially their marriage seems a delicately balanced camaraderie predicated on a cultivated ability to make fun of their situation, turn pathos into laughter, and conjure a limitless number of personas for their largely unresponsive child, Joe, (played convincingly by Adeline Wendt).
Schmeling plays Bri with manic gusto, lightly channeling Eddie Izzard. Animated and expressive, he has wonderful comic timing and the ability to make a largely unsympathetic character both entertaining and poignant. Fox’s Sheila is a compelling engine of positive determination, committed to her daughter and to the marriage that is becoming more threadbare each day. Her compassion and energy is affecting and believable, made even more coherent when we find out, in one of the many character asides to the audience, that her participation in Bri’s macabre jokes is an attempt to connect with him and hold together their dissolving relationship. Fox plays Sheila with a rounded humanity that anchors the production.
The instances when characters step to the forestage and take the audience into their confidence are moving and elevate the play above domestic dramedy. Several of these asides are impressive vaudevillian performances by Schmeling and Fox, playacting memories of doctor’s diagnoses. The draconian medical advice is both comic and jolting.
The second act ratchets up the conflict. After a theater rehearsal (at Bri’s urging and then later chagrin, his wife has joined the community theater), Sheila invites Freddie (Nathan Tylutki) and his wife Pam (Dawn Brodey) back to the house for drinks. Freddie’s outsized personality, played pitch perfectly by Tylutki as a mix of jovial good humor and well meaning provincial elitism, is a remarkable foil to Bri’s gallows humor. There is an undercurrent of sexual tension between Freddie and Sheila that Bri cannot countenance.
The play moves decidedly into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” territory, with the desperation of the relationship and the couple’s painful alliance in stark relief. Brodey’s Pam is a picture of disdain, nearly crawling out her skin as Bri acts out his dark desires and Freddie works tirelessly to provide solutions. She wants nothing more than to be somewhere else, from the ankle tilted away from the others to the arch of eyebrows and crease of mouth. Tylutki and Brodey embody a couple comfortable in upper class illusions, regarding the troubles of others as opportunities (Freddie) or annoyances (Pam). Bri’s mother arrives at a moment when it seems that tension could not be increased. Grace (Miriam Monasch) is a meddler and coddler who blames Sheila for the condition of Joe. She willfully ignores Bri’s bad behavior and sabotages what remains of the couple’s accord.
Benjamin Kutscheid’s direction and Jen Burns’ stage management are excellent. Matt Rein’s set is appropriately homely, with kitschy elements that are domestically convincing. The costumes (Lisa Conley) accentuate the socioeconomic contrast between the couples.
The play is a surprising amalgam of genres. Upsetting our expectations from the first scene, it includes dramatic pieces offset with incisive humor, sequences that resemble improvisation, physical comedy and comedies of error. Nearing the end of the play, there is a strange cat and mouse. Bri has taken Joe for reasons that are ambiguous and concerning. Characters are rushing on and off stage – fetching a doctor, going in search of medicine, trying to find Bri and Joe. In a different work, the action would be funny and absurd. In this play, the chaos and chase are heart wrenching. In many ways, this tragicomic sequence epitomizes the difficult work.
The Public Dream Theatre production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is wonderfully acted in the great Red Eye Theater space. I can promise an engaging, if perhaps discomforting, experience.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg written by Peter Nichols. Presented by Public Dreams Theatre at the Red Eye Theater, November 30-December 16. Information at Public Dreams Theatre.