Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe? is a strange title for a quirky piece that tries a little too hard to be quirkier than it is. What do I mean by quirky? The premise is straightforward enough – two women fall in love while their men are fighting in WWII, and have to make big decisions about their lives when the guys come home. The added twist is that in a strange time warp phenomenon, the younger woman, an innocent ingénue named Charlie, (Brittany Graham) is looking back on the past events from the present time (present-day Charlie is played by Janey Richards). She’s preparing her house to be sold, so she’s clearing out the attic… with her granddaughter. See? Quirky.
Playwright Vanda (yes, just one name) had me at the onset, with Grandma Charlie’s reflections on coming of age moments when she was just a couple of years older than her cute-as-a-button granddaughter, played winningly by Georgia Mae Lively, who is helping her pack the old artifacts for storage. The story shifts wonderfully back and forth through time with Grandma Charlie not just watching but actually reliving several of the interludes which adds an endearing and sparkling touch.
What do I mean by trying too hard to be quirkier than it is? Well, the granddaughter sees and comments on Grandma’s reflections as they’re portrayed on the stage. For me, that’s one too many walls being broken, and the clever twists started to feel a bit baffling.
And here’s another thing: the character of Aubra Westgate (Allyson Harkey), Charlie’s lover. From the onset, she’s a tough character to portray because Vanda stuffs her with so many different characteristics. She is drop-dead gorgeous, with old-fashioned, unapproachable elegance (costume design by Graham), and can at any time strike a lingering pose that would stop a camera in its tracks. At the same time, she is stricken by polio (dismayingly common in those pre-Salk days) and a social outcast as a result. Beautiful and bitter, bewitching and resentful, her reactions sometimes conflict in mid-beat, and make us confused and frustrated when we want to appreciate and care for the character. For example, she admonishes Charlie for dancing, a painful reminder of the agility that was snatched away from her so unfairly, but in the next scene, she lovingly watches and encourages Charlie’s spirited dancing when she is about to make her move on Charlie after getting her plastered with a bottle of wine.
And that’s another weak point in the script. A moment that should be tender and touching as two vulnerable women with husbands at war turn to each other for comfort comes across as predatory. Who is this woman anyway? She obviously has a sexual appetite for Charlie (who doesn’t seem to be her “first”), but how has she been able to be so experienced while sequestered like a prisoner in the house, feigning “fragility” to her adoring Phillip? Also, somehow, Charlei seems to have meant more to her than all the others, but the script doesn’t describe how or why. Some of the plot lines of the story veer off and turn murky in Act II, after the men return and the women begin to explore what they really mean to each other, with higher stakes. That the hefty interludes between scenes are far too long doesn’t help with clarity.
Notwithstanding these problems, Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe? has moments of real power. Director Deb Randall has found actors who embody the heart of the characters and could steal your heart in the process. Her deft directing hits the spots in establishing the scenes and capturing the moments along with the characters’ movements, intentions and motivations. The “stage” is the open space between the two major rows of the house. The effect is to include the audience intimately as part of the drama with characters entering and exiting within arms reach. As Charlie, Brittany Graham slices the stage with a gangly innocence and genuine wonder at the well-to-do lifestyle and opulence of the Westgate’s household. She whirls about with abandon and collapses in heaps of giggling joy. Christopher Herring as Joe also does a masterful job as her take-charge, lovable lunk of a sweetheart, who sets the course of their lives, makes the decisions big and small (including her wardrobe), all in doing right by his precious Charlie. His transition from fun-loving hyped-for-war new soldier, to sullen, withdrawn, battle-scarred returning vet is beautifully rendered. Janey Richards as Grandma and Dane C. Petersen as the patient-as-Job Phillip are both solid and sure in their portrayals.
As a world premiere, Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe? is a rich lattice-work of moments, beats, and characters to be explored and fine-tuned with loving care. The piece is a treasured reminder of the pace and values of time gone by, with priceless snippets from Glen Miller and “The Shadow” on the radio. It offers interesting “what if” possibilities heightening and expanding our awareness of what we thought we knew. And that’s always a delightful discovery which Venus Theatre can be trusted to consistently provide.
Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe?
Directed by Deb Randall
Produced by Venus Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Click here for Details, Directions and tickets.
Running Time: 2:15 hours w/one intermission