Written and Performed by Jjana Valentiner
Directed by Dody DiSanto
Produced at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The talented Jjana Valentiner brings a cache of characters to life in this touching collective of family members from Mormon stock on their various, sometimes comical life journeys. Riffing on and off the subtitle-“A Good Wife Always Knows Her Place,” the play centers on a young woman struggling with her family’s request that she speak at her grandfather’s funeral. In searching for the words and trying to find her voice for this duty, Megan reveals glimpses of her immediate families’ expectations, historical legacy, and rebellious and zany outtakes in this delicious collision of life smashing with conservative family values.
Valentiner wrote the play wondering “Do I have to abandon the way I was raised in order to figure out who I am?” and portrays the results with loving affection. In addition to Megan, the good girl who tries to do the right thing, Valentiner portrays a fidgety youngster bewildered about the finality of death, her angst ridden, eye-rolling, adolescent sister who is shipped off to the desert for healing and intervention, an eccentric, colorful legging and ring bedazzled Aunt who has made a strange peace with her life experiences, and, of course, Mom, the quintessential Happy Homemaker, hell-bent in her own way to save the world and fix everything and everybody, one casserole at a time.
It turns out that in his strapping youth, Grandpa was a well known philanderer, something that Megan simply cannot get her head around. How could he not be satisfied with Grandma, who came from survivor, frontier stock, whose handiwork was legendary, could feed a family on next to nothing, and whose every breath was devoted to serving others? Megan takes it upon herself to visit Grandpa in his elder, frail state, hoping to extract some kind of culpable confession from him but in an interesting twist, ends up sucked into a service not unlike her own grandmother – listening attentively, tending to him, rubbing his feet. And in the end, although she still can barely scrape up anything much to say about him, at least she has made progress on her own life journey, and shares some funny nuggets along the way.
Valentiner is in total command of her various characters. With the flip of a costume change, (sluggish at press time, but Paul McCrae’s creations are worth the wait) behind a free-standing mural covered wall of a church converted into a mental asylum, she emerges with full back story in tact. Her characters eminate from deep within, and with just enough vocal inflections, penetrating gaze, solid bearing and listening pauses, she presents their essence. Valentiner obviously is a listening actor, and instead of mimicking her characters, she nails them with swift brush strokes. As the mother armed with the ever-present apron and rolling pin, she gives a beautifully nuanced performance right down to how she cradles the mixing bowl. Having seen the devastating effects of her father’s faithlessness, how does the mother just go on rolling out pastry dough on the Formica table like her life depends on it? Perhaps because it does.
Through the sketches, Valentiner uses humor to present the day-to-day moments of her families’ lives, while hinting at the rock hard conservative principles at the core. She uses music to help set the tone and provides a fresh new take on the old Journey classic. Valentiner’s imaginative set-ups include battle preparations, complete with the triumphant theme from “Rocky” which she uses for the Power Montage, an homage of sorts to the valiant attempts of speaking truth to power.
Valentiner’s Funeral Potatoes has a startlingly fresh approach to familiar themes, mainly because of her ability to focus on how the human spirit will find a way to survive no matter the circumstances. Toggling her ancestor’s optimistic and cheery (even if somewhat delusional) enthusiasm, Megan’s lineage shows how a wholesome acceptance of what life dishes out can go a long way, especially when accompanied by a side dish of the notoriously good funeral potatoes – which if you’re lucky, you’ll sample as part of the show. Yummmm.
Running Time: 80 minutes
When: Thru February 14. Wednesday – Saturday at 8
Where: Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street, N.W.
Call: 866-811-4111 or consult the website– http://www.flashpointdc.org/