Under most circumstances a dying man in a coma is not a laughing matter.
Unless that man is Eddie Jester (Zach Gray), a stand-up comedian.
I came 15 minutes late to A Year in the Death of Eddie Jester at Mapleton Hall in Suffield, so I missed the introduction. The Suffield Players were gracious enough to let me and some others attend the pick-up rehearsal because I couldn’t make the closing shows this weekend. Disclaimer: I’ve performed with the community theater group before in The Shot Heard ‘Round for New Faces and will be one of the Angels in the theater company’s production of Anything Goes in May.
Even without seeing the beginning, it didn’t take me long to understand that Gray’s narrator represented the consciousness of the patient in a coma (Tim Glynn).
The storytelling is very clear in its minimal black box style but is not without surprises. Who knew Eddie’s wife, Susan (Karen Balaska) and girlfriend, Jennifer (Amanda Marschall) would get along so well even though he was cheating on both of them? Oh, baby!
The scenes are broken up into the months of Jester’s recovery after he is mugged, though the title tells us that this year might be his last.
Watching Gray pace the lower stage while humorously commentating on the upstage scenes almost instantly read as a stand-up comedy act, picking apart his own life and the people around him. His audience interaction and connection added a very real flavor to the story, better enabling us to empathize with him.
The chemistry of Balaska, a Suffield Players veteran, and my friend, Marschall, who has many impressive credits like previously working with actor Alec Baldwin. They both bring physicality to the roles and we learn the most about Eddie through their dialogues.
I first saw Marschall as Celia in Suffield Players’ As You Like It. I admire her ability to own a role and make you believe she really is that character. As someone who is usually in the ensemble, I often find myself watching what the actors are doing when they’re not speaking. Marschall’s expressions and reactions almost speak louder than words. Her knack for smart, interactive comedy is noticeable, such as a couple of occasions where she mimes a story about something Eddie once said as Gray vocalizes the lines.
Then there’s Max (Danny Viets), Jester’s haphazard, nervous agent who is an emotional roller coaster, ridden with guilt over his plan to cash in on the insurance policy he took out for his talent in the event of his death. Viets masterfully crafts a comically neurotic, fidgety and even flamboyant character who always seems to be thrown for a loop – literally. This slapstick comedy is something we see often from Viets on and off stage. In a scene where Susan and Jennifer need his help as they experience the labors of life, Viets is not afraid to go airborne and take a heavy fall or two for comedic effect. Ouch!
While Gray occasionally stumbled over his diction in lengthy paragraphs of lines – granted it was a rehearsal – his strongest moments came when he moved and gestured more, helping to pace and energize his monologues. When Jester tries to communicate with the other characters who can’t see or hear him, those are emotional high points because you feel his frustration and distance from the people right in front of him. One scene that comes to mind is when he attempts to convince Max to go to the washroom to catch the doctor (Shaun O’Keefe) in the act of a fling with his nurse (Jessica Burkavage).
Nicole Murray plays the other nurse who takes nonsense from no one.
Pick-up rehearsals, sometimes called brush-up rehearsals, are an opportunity for actors and crew to refresh their memories and practice another run-through after a week off from rehearsals in between show weekends. Actors (and sometimes the technical crew) are often notorious for goofing off in pick-up rehearsals and inserting jokes, though some directors prefer to keep the brush-up serious with business as usual. With this production of Eddie Jester it was hard to tell what kind of pick-up it was because the show is already so outrageously funny that I don’t know what other gags they could add.
Either way, you could tell that the cast had fun with each other and the book. When the actors are having fun, it percolates out into the audience, as well.
A Year in the Death of Eddie Jester, directed by Roger A. Ochs, closes this weekend, with final shows on Friday, Feb. 21 and Saturday, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. AM Johansen is the assistant director, Ron Balaska produces the comedy, Chelsea Viets, recently married to Danny Viets, stage manages, and Jerry Zalewski is the technical director.
T. Gregory Hall, the playwright, will be in attendance at Saturday’s show and is making himself available for a 15-minute question and answer session.
Mapleton Hall is located at 1305 Mapleton Avenue in Suffield, easily accessible from I-91.
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