The Green Room is perhaps the most intimate theater space in the Quad Cities. It’s the closeness of the audience to the performers that heightens the intimacy of “john & jen”, a play with two actors, but three characters.
“john & jen” is mainly the story of Jen. We travel with her through her life, from the time her brother is born to the moment her son is off to college.
The first act is Jen’s life with John, her brother. With an abusive father, Jen promises to stay with John, always, to prevent John from becoming the man he adores, their father. But, Jen can’t stay with him forever. She leaves for college and the siblings continue on down very different political paths. John’s leads him to his death in Vietnam.
The second act is Jen’s life with John, her son, named after her brother. With this John, she’s determined not to leave him, to protect him from the pain she knew and the path that lead to her brother’s death. But, the best laid plans of mice and Jen often go awry.
The story is meant to be a story of loss, or so the Internet tells me. I didn’t find it nearly so poignant. There are moments of loss, which did move me, but the show seems so much more about the interactions of John and Jen and John than it does about their losses, or, Jen’s specifically. Yes, she sits with her photo album and remembers, but the impact of her loss isn’t conveyed to the audience as deeply as it could be. The director is correct to describe the show in the director’s notes as more about Jen’s “journey to overcome the emotional trauma she has suffered”. It still isn’t quite that poignant, but there is that underlying theme.
While this is a book musical, with dialogue in between songs, it’s barely so. The story lies almost entirely in the string of songs performed by John and Jen. Thankfully, they vary in style and emotion, adding interest and surprise, rather than feeling like one long song.
As I said, I didn’t find the show as poignant as I think it was meant to be. Instead, I would call it cute. And, it’s cute because of Ryan Westwood’s performance. Both actors in the show are called upon to portray their characters at difference ages. Ryan excels at presenting the uninhibited and unjaded excitement of youth. He is cute at the age of five, seven, eleven and twelve, if I remember the ages correctly. And, he’s able to remove just enough exhuberance at each higher age to make that age believable. And his talk show host! Well, I’ll leave that for you to see. This show may be centered moreso around Jen, but it’s Westwood who owns the stage, captivating the audience with his exceptional performance as both John and John.
Sarah Ulloa handles the role of Jen. I’ve enjoyed seeing Ulloa on stage at least twice before, as she seems to have so much fun. So, I was surprised to see her hold back a bit in this role. She has a fantastic, powerhouse of a voice. Her strong vocals carry her through this show. But, she’s stronger on singing than on acting. Her age differences for Jen are fairly undistinguishable. And, often, her movements seem staged. She’s moving through her blocking, looking this way or stepping that way, because it’s her blocking. Rather than being a spontaneous movement, she moves because she’s supposed to move. It’s actually subtle and not a huge distraction, but it was something that caught my attention. And, it shouldn’t be what defines Ulloa’s performance. Again, her vocals are excellent. With a truer feeling and motivation behind them, Ulloa would be truly exceptional.
“john & jen” is Tyson Wm. Danner’s first directing experience. And I have to say, he does a find job of it on his inaugural effort. There’s attention given to lighting, which adds wells to the drama unfolding on stage. Particularly, placing Westwood behind a draping of fabric with a light on him to make him appear through it is quite effective. I’m not sure red is the best choice for the light, but the effect is solid. And, Tyson uses props and set pieces! The set pieces are still minimalistic, but there are set pieces on stage, which truly helps the performers. As a director, I think Danner could’ve pulled more out of Ulloa’s performance on the acting side. That’s a directing ability that will only strengthen as Danner continues to sit in the director’s chair for future productions.
“john & jen” runs this weekend only, starting tonight, at The Green Room Theatre in Rock Island. Performances are tonight, tomorrow night and Saturday at 7:30, with a 2:30 matinee performance on Sunday. Tickets are $15 and can be reserved by calling the theater at (309) 786-5660.