Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Joined at the Head"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Larry Stark

"Joined at the Head"

by Catherine Butterfield
Directed by Karen Dervin

Assistant Director Nicole Sparks
Costume Design by Susan Harrington
Lighting Design by Mark Sickler
Sound Design by Gordon Ellis
Set Design by Jennifer Shea
Hair/Makeup Design by James Lynch
Co-Producers Ronni Marshak, Mario Salinas
Props Coordinator Michelle Fisher
Assistant Stage Manager Paul Zakrzewski
Stage Manager Maggie Benagh

Maggie Mulroney...........Jennifer Parkos
Maggy Burroughs.............Allison McCann
Jim Burroughs.............William McGregor
Mrs. Mulroney & others..........Kate Blair
Mr. Mulroney & others..........Cliff Blake
Salesclerk & others.......Stephanie Garris
Nora & others............Vivian Liu-Somers
Doctor & others.............Ellen Robinson
Raymond & others..............Brian Zifcak

"God is a circle whose circumference is infinite and whose center is everywhere."
Mike Nichols was quoted saying "Plays are about where people stand; movies are about whose scene it is."
Neither of these quotes appear in Catherine Butterfield's fascinating play "Joined at the Head" but trying to get one's head around them might be a good exercise in preparation for seeing it. This is another play that could be filmed, but becomes much more powerful live on the Hovey Players' stage. Karen Dervan, its director, calls it a comedy about cancer --- though there's a little more to it than that.

The story has three characters, but a six-person "chorus" plays a panoply of people in the background. The narrator (or is she the protagonist?) Maggie Mulroney --- she's played by Jennifer Parkos [formerly Jennifer Hopkins] --- is a novelist on a book-tour for her latest (titled "Joined at the Head"), and she's just noticed that everyone, all of us, is each one the center of a story for which everyone else is background. That's why each member of the chorus has a name but all of them play bit-parts in the main action while "serving to swell the scene" playing several others. (Stick with this, it's easier than it sounds!)

The two women in the story went to the same suburban-Boston high school a year apart, and the younger, Maggy Burroughs (Allison McCann), married the narrator's high-school sweetheart Jim (William McGregor), but at the outset of the play faces painful chemotherapy for cancer. The playwright gives both the "Maggies" the right to step out of the action and talk directly to the audience --- and to talk to one another, disagreeing about the way the story is being developed, showing sometimes what one or the other imagined took place, or might have taken place. One of the Maggies has what turns out to have been a dream in which she's talked to by her dead father. [You see, can't you, how much easier but at-a-distance this would be in a movie?]

The two women are very different. Parkos' novelist is reflective, exploratory, in a sense fuzzily unsure of things --- and takes pains to make things clear directly to the audience. McCann's patient is quick, forceful, and an "I don't think so" antagonist about points of disagreement. Some of the sharpest humor in this play comes from this struggle over just whose viewpoint wins out --- what MaggIE calls Brechtian (but it's really Pirandellian, isn't it?).

But you have to take my word for it, this is a very funny play. (Ignore my tears; sometimes I cry because comedies are so beautifully played. Honest!) And I know I've ignored William McGregor's Jim; he doesn't get to talk to You, the audience very much --- but he is husband to one Maggy, ex-lover to the other Maggie, and unwavering love is obvious in every sincere nuance of his "background" performance. He, and the sextet of micro-characters, use instant mime and change minimalist sets as quickly as --- as a movie cuts to new scenes.

But the most important thing about this show [everybody said last night] is The Chairs! (No, not Ionesco's play!) The Hovey Players have exchanged their fifty-year-old ex-moviehouse seats for brand-new cushions and increased leg-room! (And the collapsing "Bill Marx Special Seat" is now but a giggly memory.) Their Abbottt Memorial cellar showspace has been transformed into a sybaritic paradise in which to experience one hell of a good play!

( a k a larry stark )

"Joined at the Head" (15 - 30 January)
@ Abbott Memorial Theater, 9 Spring Street at Joel's Way, WALTHAM MA
1 (781) 893-9171

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide