Strong cast drives "Jake's Women" at CHT
CHURCH HILL — Neil Simon’s “Jake’s Women,” now playing at Church Hill Theatre, looks at a writer who keeps trying to rewrite his own life in his imagination.
“Jake’s Women” opened on Broadway in 1992, with Alan Alda in the title role. Alda was nominated for a Tony Award as best actor. While not as well known as some of the author’s earlier plays, it has the combination of real-life characters and sharp dialogue that audiences know to expect from Simon.
Still, the tone of the play may surprise those who expect Simon to deliver a light comedy in the vein of “The Odd Couple” or “Barefoot in the Park.” According to director Shelagh Grasso’s notes in the playbill, it was written after Simon’s third marriage broke up. Grasso speculates that the play “might be a peek into the mind of Neil Simon,” reworking his own experiences in a fictional guise.
The play opens in Jake’s New York apartment, where his writing is interrupted by a phone call from his sister Karen, precipitating an argument. After he hangs up, he finds himself talking to a “ghost” of his wife, Maggie, who is away at work. She complains he’s always working and never has time for her. She briefly joins in a re-enactment of their first meeting, then tells him that dwelling on the past won’t do anything to save the future.
Jake then turns to the audience to explain that his marriage is in trouble. He imagines a conversation with his sister, explaining that he’s worried that Maggie is having an affair. Karen shoots back with the accusation that he himself had an affair with an actress not long ago. At this point, the real Maggie arrives home.
Jake tells Maggie they need to talk before dinner. But when he tells her they have a dinner date with Karen Saturday night, she reminds him she has to go to Philadelphia for work over the weekend. Jake asks her point-blank if she wants out of the marriage, and an argument escalates from that point.
Much of the rest of the play, Jake interacts with the “ghosts” of the other women in his life — his daughter Mollie, whom we see at her current age as a college senior and as a 12-year old; his analyst Edith; and his deceased first wife Julie.
Gregory Minahan, recently seen in the title role of Shore Shakespeare’s production of “MacBeth,” makes his CHT debut in the role of Jake. It’s almost an understatement to call it a demanding role; Jake is onstage for the entire play. Minahan, who has been a singer and dancer in several Broadway productions including “Cats” and “Peter Pan,” is an energetic performer. He effectively projects the character’s inner torments while keeping a light enough touch not to turn the play into a dark psychodrama. His strong performance is exactly what the part needs.
Christine Kinlock, who has appeared in several roles at CHT, plays Maggie, Jake’s second wife. She nicely conveys the essence of a woman trying to climb the corporate ladder even though it is creating conflicts in her relationship to Jake.
Debra Ebersole, a CHT regular, takes the role of Jake’s sister, Karen. In a way, hers is the most comic role in the play, as she nags her brother the way only a family member can. Ebersole does a nice job; it looks as if she’s having fun, especially as she complains about the imaginary fashions her brother has dressed her in.
Two actresses play Molly, Jake’s daughter. Their relationship with Jake is perhaps the most direct of any of the characters; he says at one point that Molly’s the only person he has ever trusted.
Nina Sharp, CHT’s executive manager, plays college-age Molly. Riley Sutherland, a seventh-grade student at Centreville Middle School, plays 12-year-old Molly. Both are convincing and likeable in the role, and it’s even plausible that the one would grow up to be the other.
Jake’s psychiatrist, Edith, is played by Jane Copple, another CHT stalwart. This is another role with lots of comic potential, and Copple makes the most of it with wisecracks about Jake’s therapy sessions and his sex life.
Kendall Davis plays Julie, Jakes first wife, who died 10 years before the play begins. A Washington College graduate, she is making her CHT debut with this performance. Julie is perhaps the warmest character in the play, sweet and devoted to Jake.
Becca Van Aken takes the role of Sheila, one of the women Jake begins dating during his separation from Maggie. She nicely conveys the character’s perplexity at Jake’s sudden changes of mind, as prompted by his “ghosts.”
The set, designed by Grasso and her husband Carmen Grasso, mixes several levels, representing the different aspects of Jake’s life and his imaginary world. We see Jake’s New York apartment, with walkways above it where the “ghosts” appear. Not as striking as many of the CHT sets, but dramatically effective.
Damatic lighting effects designed by Doug Kaufmann underscore Jake’s “meltdowns” — a nice effect that brings out the different dimensions of the scene.
Barbi Bedell designed the costumes, which effectively convey the characters’ status and subtly make connections between them. A nice touch is the costuming in a scene where Julie and Molly meet, both wearing the same jacket — handed down from mother to daughter.
The play runs close to three hours, with one intermission. Combined with its adult themes, this one may be a bit much for younger theater-goer, although there’s nothing particularly offensive in the language.
“Jake’s Women” runs through Feb. 5, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, call 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org.