Kelly Sheridan and Peter Wilson in The Realistic Joneses. (photo by Nancy Caldwell)
The unfortunate truth is that we are all going to die some day. How we cope with our mortality defines our approach to life. Playwright Will Eno encapsulates this concept in his award-winning play The Realistic Joneses, produced by the Mint Collective and currently running at the Vancouver Culture Lab at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre until Dec. 17.
The New York Times has called Eno, “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” His life view comes through an intellectual lens of verbal dexterity and abstract projections that, at first blush, seem disjointed and oddly out of place, but eventually morph into a revelatory and provocative perspective on death and dying. Eno is a wordsmith but it takes some time and mental effort to understand exactly what is happening on stage.
The play had its debut at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012 and then went on to a successful Broadway run in 2014, including a Drama Desk Award Special Award.
Next-door neighbours, both with the surname Jones, live in smalltown America. Bob and Jennifer, middle-aged longtime residents, are the foils for the newly wed 30-somethings John and Pony, whose lives intersect through the tragedy of the male side of each couple having the same degenerative neurological condition that affects memory and speech. Both men are undergoing experimental treatments from a local specialist. Each knows there is no cure and deals with this reality in his own way. Their coping mechanisms define the play and expose the vulnerability and pathos of those with terminal conditions.
The action is portrayed in a series of vignettes, snapshot moments in the lives of these two generationally divided families as they forge an uneasy friendship in the dance towards death. These people are real, albeit a little weird. The dialogue is witty and fast-paced – in this play, “the words are the thing.” Despite the dark nature of the subject matter, there are some very funny moments.
Joan Bryans is brilliant as Jennifer, the long-suffering and brave wife who has given up her career to become her husband’s caregiver and tries to give his deteriorating life a sense of normalcy. Community member Charles Siegel plays Bob with an almost childlike, naive demeanor as his memory slowly fades. As the younger couple, Peter Wilson plays John, the quirky doting husband, in a maniacal sort of way and Kelly Sheridan is the scatterbrained Mrs. Jones Junior.
The intimacy of the black-box Culture Lab adds to the audience experience. The divided set is simple: one half is the backyard of the older Joneses, the other half is the kitchen of the younger duo. Lighting and sound design complement the simplicity of the production. It is smalltown in anywhere America on a summer’s eve, replete with chirping crickets, hooting owls, barking dogs and chiming church bells.
There is no easy resolution at the end of the play, no happy ending tied up with a shiny bow to send audiences on their merry way out into the night, just the thought that this is the reality of life, with all its complications, and maybe, just maybe, that’s OK.
Tickets and more information can be found at thecultch.com or by calling 604-251-1363.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.