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"This" Review - Hilarity and Despair Mark this Phenomenal Play about Relationships

By Andrea Kramar

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Melissa James Gibson’s This is a brilliant script filled with wit and humor that simultaneously hits on the despondency and disappointment that strikes many marriages and relationships today. Gibson’s writing comes to life at Theater Wit through wonderful directing by Jeremy Wechsler and a talented ensemble of actors.

(from left) Mitchell J. Fain is Alan, John Byrnes is Tom, Steve Hadnagy is Jean-Pierre, Rebecca Spence is Jane and Lily Mojekwu is Merrill in Theater Wit's Chicago premiere of Melissa James Gibson's rueful comic drama This. Photo by Johnny Knight.

The plot itself is riveting, and each of the actors play their respective roles very believably. The story surrounds Jane, a woman in her mid 30’s who recently lost her husband and is now a single woman raising her young child. When the play opens she visits her good friends’ house, married couple, Merrill and Tom, to dine and relax, accompanied by friends Alan and French bachelor Jean-Pierre. Merrill and Tom are undergoing their own relationship troubles, intensifying by the minute as they try to raise a crying baby together. With all five friends in the room, we quickly come to realize that Jane may not be as ready to date as her friends originally thought, and that Merrill and Tom’s relationship is rockier than would appear at first glance.

One of Gibson’s strongest suits in this play is the innovative reincorporation of elements of the story mentioned early on into what occurs later on and creatively makes seemingly general themes relevant to her characters. In the beginning, at Tom and Merrill’s apartment, all the characters decide to play a fun game with Jane to lighten her up from her usual morose mood. They send her out of the room, explain the rules of the game, which is really not a game but merely a set of rules by which to answer her “yes-no”-questions (something like the following: if her question ends with a vowel, the answer is “yes,” if the answer ends with a consonant, the answer is “no,” if the answer ends with a y, the answer is “maybe”). Thus while the friends pretend to have a plan and a story in mind, Jane will actually be the one to create the story by virtue of the questions she asks. When the game is played, the questions Jane ends up asking and the “yes,” “no,” “maybe” replies turn out to be about Jane’s dull life. In other words, Jane unknowingly ends up creating a story and game about herself---the lonely woman who has recently been widowed and who exhibits a negative attitude on life. While Jane’s friends wanted this to be a fun and uplifting game for her, in the end it ends up making Jane even more despondent, to the point that she leaves the apartment party early and runs home to what in her eyes is a sad and hopeless life. Gibson takes what should be a fun, silly, impersonal game and writes it in such a way as to make it dark and relevant, thereby taking the characters, and audience, on an unexpected, personal turn.

Rebecca Spence is Jane, and John Byrnes is Tom in Theater Wit's Chicago premiere of Melissa James Gibson's rueful comic drama This. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Like this game, the play takes many unexpected turns, preventing the audience from predicting the path of the story. Interestingly, I expected this play to be about the entire ensemble as a whole and their relationships with each other, but a little more than halfway through the play, I realized the play really was about Jane ( Rebecca Spence). Because it was not clear from the beginning, I felt that the play did not adequately set up the story to be about her---in the beginning, she was just another team player on stage, who gradually commanded more and more of the attention. Moreover, when the play ended with a very serious and solemn scene in which Jane talks to her daughter about their future outside her daughter’s closed door, I was caught off guard, expecting a lighter, wittier ending. Because the play throughout had been both incredibly humorous and dark at the same time, I expected it to end that way. Thus I found the script set up an emotional roadmap for the audience that was a bit unstable and unpredictable, leading the audience in one direction and then unexpectedly taking them another. Despite the sometimes lack of linearity in the play’s focus, and despite the ever changing emotional waves the play went down, the play was still phenomenal.

Rebecca Spence is Jane in Theater Wit's Chicago premiere

Gibson surely knows how to write with humor. During the game described above, the ever funny Mitchell J. Jain, who plays Jane’s frank and funny gay friend, takes longer than everyone else to answer all the questions as he figures out in his head whether her questions end in a vowel, a consonant, or a “y.” Throughout the game he persistently is one step behind the rest of the gang and persistently and loudly answers Jane three seconds too late. His sincere intent on responding to her questions correctly (according to the game’s rules) was just hysterical to watch. I literally could not stop laughing every time he lifted his head and opened his mouth.

Gibson clearly is adept at incorporating humor into her plays, and the actors of This are constantly on par with her. In addition to the funny Fain moments, another humorous, light bit occurs throughout the play when Jane, despite being proper and mature, has a broken jacket she can never seem to unzip. Every time she comes on stage from outside, she struggles to unzip her body-length parka and always decides to shimmy the jacket down her body and over her boots, always shamelessly struggling to get it off from under her shoes. The act is consistently funny because it’s a quirk we associate with Jane throughout the play and because it is so silly and immature for a person who is seemingly so put-together and composed. Another funny tidbit Gibson adds to the play involves JP or Jean-Pierre and his obsession with sex, with anyone and everyone. Towards the end of the play, when Merrill and Tom’s relationship is in shambles after Jane has revealed she had sex with Tom, JP is ignorant and aloof and merely elated that Tom has had “extra-marital sex” (no pun intended!). In an otherwise dark and desperate scene, JP’s commitment to his love for sex, sex, sex adds humor to the scene and in a weird way brings a bit of light to the other characters.

Jane ( Rebecca Spence) is genuine as a sweet, charismatic, hopeless woman in the midst of a mid-life crisis. She is completely believable as a woman fluctuating between the ups and downs of her life and quickly wins the audience’s affections. When Tom (Merrill’s husband, played by John Byrnes) comes on to her toward the beginning of the play, her initial reluctance and confusion is genuine, but when she quickly relents and begins kissing back, we understand her and the difficult qualms she faces. She is a lonely woman desiring affection and deeply confused as to what she is doing with her life. And her response, despite it being wrong and adulterous, is very believable.

Rebecca Spence is Jane, and John Byrnes is Tom in Theater Wit's Chicago premiere of Melissa James Gibson's rueful comic drama This. Photo by Johnny Knight.

In the following scene, the plot heats up and the audience senses tension as Jane and Merrill (Lily Mojekwu) enjoy ice cream together (actual ice cream on stage, messy and melting galore, believe it or not!) in a local park. Jane has just committed adultery on her best friend Merrill, but is not ready to tell Merrill the truth. Unknowingly, Merrill complains that Tom never wants sex anymore and outwardly wonders whether she should see what a relationship would be like with someone else. Irony abounds as Jane stringently replies that “adultery is not the answer” and that the couple should do everything they can to ride the wave together. The irony heightens toward the end of the scene when Merrill exalts Jane for being a woman with strong integrity and a moral compass, and tells Jane she “know[s] how to keep the wolf away from the door.” Again, Gibson creatively and surreptitiously synthesizes various elements of the story into this scene, allowing the audience (and Jane) to see the paradox of what’s going on, while leaving Merrill in the dark. Gibson’s plotline and writing is incredibly compelling, with high stakes in this scene and throughout the play, and Mojekwu and Spence complement that writing with strong and believable acting choices.

(from left) Rebecca Spence is Jane, and Lily Mojekwu is Merrill in Theater Wit's Chicago premiere of Melissa James Gibson's rueful comic drama This. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Toward the end of the play, the plot continues to unfold and all hell breaks lose as Jane, in a slightly drunken state cries and reveals that she cheated on Merrill with Tom. Jane cannot succumb to the guilt she feels and we quickly see in Jane a very human characteristic. While most people would live with the guilt and hide it, perhaps even relish in the devilishness and adventurousness of it, Jane is honest and genuine---she is but a good person trying to repent and come to amends with the horrific act she has committed. It was refreshing to see such an honest, moral person on stage, and Spence wholly succeeds in giving her character such humanistic, redeeming qualities. Mojekwu, another highly talented actress, responds honestly and naturally to the drama of the situation---she at first thinks she misheard, but when she figures it out, she almost robotically hands the baby to Alan, walks away, and begins to laugh and yell simultaneously in a moment of chaos. As an actor, she seems to have intelligently calculated in her head how to make this moment genuine, for the progression of events is so natural and real. Despite the drama of it all, nothing about the way the situation was performed felt contrived.

Even amidst this very serious and drama-filled scene, Gibson again incorporates humor to lighten things up---in this scene, with alcohol. Despite her remorse, Jane comes off as humorous in her primordial need for alcohol to down her troubles. Despite her shame and emotional breakdown, she is fully intent on imbibing everything around her. Alan (Fain), as a good-natured, fun-loving friend is quick to help Jane in her situation, and pours for her what appears to be at least seven shots despite his outward incredulousness because she already finished the bottle of wine. Overall, the scene was refreshing and real in that a little bit of humor could be found in such a dismal scene.

Mitchell J. Fain is Alan, and Rebecca Spence is Jane in Theater Wit's Chicago

The monologue that Rebecca Spence delivers as Jane shortly thereafter is golden and a redeemable moment for her character. In a heartfelt, drunken, emotional diatribe, Jane finally counters the constant assumptions and romanticizing her friends have placed upon her and her seemingly perfect life with her husband. After keeping her emotions inside her usual uptight self, she finally opens up, revealing long-held sadness, anger, and nostalgia, revealing that nothing was ever perfect and that she has long felt emptiness inside. Even though the scene should be about implicating Jane for her immoral act, it actually ends up being about the way in which Jane is almost innocent, or at least not worthy of haranguing as she, herself is undergoing deep pain. She doesn’t want to be the impetus for the fallout between Tom and Merrill; Jane merely wants to be understood.

In being so honest and open, despite the shame involved in the situation, Jane becomes incredibly relatable and earns the audience’s sympathy. Gibson again takes a very linear, predictable situation and turns it on its head, moving the focus of the situation to where she sees fit---in this case, to Jane.

Overall, the play was just wonderful. The plot was riveting, the topic was very relatable and real yet had just the right amount of humor, and the actors were a delight to watch. Go see it for yourself!

Performances run through March 27: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Single tickets are $18 to $35. For tickets and information, visit TheaterWit.org or call the Theater Wit box office, 773.975.8150.

Photos by Johnny Knight

Published on Mar 05, 2011

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