Chicago Theatre Review
A Thought Provoking Evening of Theatre
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols is the story of Brian and Sheila, a married couple who have grown cynical with their lives as the parents of a 10 year old girl with Cerebral Palsy. Their daughter Josephine, or Joe for short, is so disabled she does no more than moan and shake her arms. During this day in the play, Brian teeters on the brink of making a life or death decision for his daughter. With some very dark comedic moments skillfully performed by the cast, this show creates an authentic environment to spark conversation about quality of life issues for the severely disabled.
Peter Nichols, the playwright, originally opened A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in Glasgow in 1967. Needless to say, the play was considered very controversial because of it’s subject matter, and also because the character of Joe is present on stage for much of the play in her nearly vegetative state. According to the Dramaturg, Skye Robinson Hills, the play was received surprisingly well by audiences and critics because of it’s honest approach to the lives of the severely disabled and their caretakers. Nichols himself was the father of a disabled daughter who passed away five years after this play premiered. Hills enlightening notes on the play were present in the press packet, but sadly were left out of the general program. This type of historical context really would have been a great addition to the play for all audience members.
Stage Left Theatre’s production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is well done and all of the elements fit together nicely. Director Greg Werstler, an ensemble member of Stage Left Theatre Company, really seems to make the subject matter the heart of his production. The lighting, sound, and staging elements are not flashy or overly artistic, but successfully frame the story. Likewise the comedic elements, for the most part, don’t become too stagey. The best performances of the subtle comedy that dominates this play are the long, ranting monologues of Brian’s mother Grace, played by Marssie Mencotti. Mencotti pushes these monologues just over the line into a satirical representation of a controlling mother figure.
Stage Left does an admirable job of executing this difficult play. Nichols’ play is not an evening of easy entertainment, but it is great for fueling a debate on subjects like quality of life and euthanasia. Vance Smith and Kendra Thulin, who play Brian and Sheila respectively, are wonderful at being funny and tragic, often simultaneously. However, there is a natural barrier of personal experience. It is not only difficult, I assume, to play characters like Brian and Sheila without having cared for a disabled family member, but it is also difficult to understand as an audience. The play doesn’t lend to a suspension of disbelief, in either content or form. Smith and Thulin have to move between a linear storyline and comical skits of their family’s back-story presented straight to the audience, as if telling antic dotes at a party. This element of Nichols’ play makes the audience very aware of the story as a play and that distance allows a viewer to keep their own mind and opinions about the events that occur, which certainly could create very different reactions. Especially in the final scenes of the play, the personal experiences of the audience can really effect whether Brian comes off as sympathetic or cruel.
Stage Left Theatre’s production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a good play to be followed by long discussions into the night. However, it will not provide the kind of entertainment you get from something like a musical or improv show. This production will leave you with a heaviness in your chest and most likely tears in your eyes.
Reviewed by Clare Kosinski
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg presented by Stage Left Theatre Company.
Playing January 11 – February 16 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773.975.8150 or by visiting www.theatrewit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.