Hillbarn Theatre’s latest offering, John & Jen, is best described as a chamber musical. Written by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, the show calls for two actors and three musicians to bring the audience the winding story of Jen Tracy and the two Johns in her life. Alicia Teeter plays Jen, and William Giammona plays her baby brother and her son, both named John. The story covers almost 40 years from 1952 to 1990, and as the plot unfolds, we see humor, pathos, and drama, all in slightly less than 2 hours. In the beginning, Jen is 6 and her baby brother is a newborn. At the end, she’s 44 and her son is 18 and just getting ready to start college.
In Act 1, we note that their dysfunctional family brings the children close together as they seek solace from one another. Jen tries desperately to protect her baby brother from their abusive, though unseen father as best she can until John hits double digits, and then they each want the other to just go away. That changes when Jen graduates from high school and heads off to college leaving John behind to “Hold Down the Fort”. In her absence, John changes. He tries desperately to please their father, and in the process adopts his views. This change in direction leads John to join the Navy, a decision with which Jen strongly disagrees and which yields a tragic result that scars her deeply.
In Act 2, we start again, this time with Jen’s son John as a newborn, and we watch how her life changes from being the protective older sister to being the overprotective mother desperately trying to use her son to make up for failing her brother. The difficult thing for Jen is that her son isn’t quite as naïve as her brother was as a child. Times have changed. Her brother grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, while her son is a product of the 1970s and ‘80s and is far more jaded.
Director Jay Manley has done a nice job staging this abstract, yet touching and intimate show, though the storyline is a bit disjoint. Each new scene abruptly changes the year and sometimes the location. There are some affecting scenes where Teeter and Giammona interact directly with one another. Examples include the opening to each act (excluding the prologue) with Jen gently welcoming each baby John into the world as he sleeps under a blanket with a pacifier in his mouth. “Think Big” takes place in their special hiding place in the attic, and we get a taste of their closeness in this scene as well.
The two “Christmas” scenes also stand out, but for a different reason. Giammona plays a wide-eyed five-year-old in Act 1, eager for Santa to arrive. In Act 2, he’s a jaded seven-year-old maintaining the Santa tradition solely for his mother’s benefit, and he captures the right tone and body language each time.
There are several scenes where Teeter and Giammona aren’t interacting directly, even though they are both on stage, but they instead voice their characters’ points of view in a somewhat detached way, singing across or on top of one another. While a tad impersonal, it’s effective, particularly during their characters’ conflicts, and “Run and Hide” exemplifies this tactic. Teeter and Giammona are both young adults this time, in a driving, angry number that opens one of the most emotionally charged and tragic scenes in the play. The childlike qualities are gone; Teeter’s Jen is a know-it-all new college graduate, full of herself, boastful, and a bit flippant. Giammona has turned staunch patriot by this time, fully accepting of their father’s mindset. He’s appropriately stiff with a military bearing hammering home the gravity of John’s decision.
Teeter’s character shows tremendous emotional growth throughout the story, and her Jen eventually does learn from her mistakes, but it takes a while. Giammona’s John(s) span the same years in each of their lives, and he successfully draws distinctions between their two personalities.
The vast majority of the show is sung, and the few lines that are spoken are underscored with music from the chamber trio helmed by musical director and pianist Graham Sobelman. The voices blend well as they perform a very difficult and somewhat jumbled score. The musical lines are complex, both in the instrumental accompaniment and in the contrapuntal vocal lines. The instrumental ensemble also includes a cellist and a percussionist in a combination that works quite well in the space. Alan Chang has done a nice job with the sound design. The actors are amplified, and the balance with one another and between the vocalists and the instrumental ensemble is very good. Every note can be heard, whether it’s sung by the actors or played by the cellist.
Robert Broadfoot’s set design is simple, functional, and works very well. The stage is broken into four distinct levels in five linked areas, all but center stage sporting a large butcher block piece that serves as a bench, bed, and “closet” behind which props and costumes are easily and quickly accessed. Clothes racks stage right and left also allow for quick changes as the story moves forward. Upstage center is a house-shaped projection screen used to display each year at the top of the scene. On opening night, a computer glitch prevented this for the duration of Act 1, instead displaying the occasional computer desktop. Fortunately, the display of the years returned in Act 2, and hopefully will remain intact for the rest of the run.
Aya Matsutomo’s lighting design is mostly functional, but there are times when the light cues seem a tad late and an actor will start in the dark and move into the light during the action, or in one dramatic scene, the actor stays in shadow the entire time which is out of place given the import of the moment.
In spite of a few technical difficulties, this is a touching production that provides a solid evening’s entertainment. Also, this is a show that isn’t done very often, so if you miss Hillbarn’s run, it will likely be a long while before it comes around again.
What: John & Jen
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
When: Continues through 7 April 2013.
See http://hillbarntheatre.org/john-jen/ for more information or to order tickets.
(Photo courtesy of Hillbarn Theatre)