Monday, October 20, 2014

Theatre on the Square's 'Lightning and Jellyfish': Journey to a time of personal boundaries at the continent's edge

Somewhere back around the time Bob Dylan was starting his long apprenticeship toward rock elder-
statesman status, he released an album called "Self-Portrait," with hideous, self-daubed cover art and two discs of humdrum music inside.
How Dylan saw himself, truly or not.

A friend of mine solemnly said of it: "I think he's finally being true to himself." A notorious review of "Self-Portrait" in Rolling Stone opened with: "What is this s---?"

Somewhere between those polarities lies the world of "Lightning and Jellyfish," a seriocomic meditation on late adolescence by Lou Harry. On the one hand, it almost affectionately recalls the Cape May resort town he hails from, seen through young, hopefully maturing eyes.  On the other, it riffs on the transient nature of Jersey Shore summers and the ebb and flow of seeking permanence versus moving on.

Rachel (Allyson Womack) and Angela (Abigail Gilster) keep it real.
No better milieu for such a theme, perhaps. than a rock 'n' roll poster shop — a business able to register with seismograph accuracy the tiniest shakes and wiggles of the youth-culture Zeitgeist. The playwright weaves into his story of a bright, sensitive young woman who works in such a place many witty references to how musical tastes express themselves through sales of T-shirts, posters, and other mass-produced memorabilia.

Giving the right answers to questions about song and band preferences requires keeping a keen eye on the market: local versus national acts, blue-chip artists like Dylan or hot newcomers like Joan Jett. And always, the Jerseyite tribal god Bruce Springsteen. Relationships can stand or fall on evanescent musical loyalties. In summer-of-'82 Wildwood (the principal setting of "Lightning and Jellyfish"), those answers and sales figures went in one set of directions. In 1983 — or perhaps as soon as November, or alternatively in Asbury Park or Rehoboth Beach — they surely went in quite another.

It's a constant tug of war between asserting authenticity and discovering inauthenticity — for which those two quoted responses to "Self-Portrait" can stand in, respectively — that college-bound Angela has to wage.

The play opened over the weekend on Stage Two of Theatre on the Square. Sunday's performance made me wish that the noise of other activities in the building didn't quite so easily bleed through the walls. There was emotional bleeding going on during the last scene that I very much wanted to attend to.

Putting that aside, the long opening scene between  pivotal character Angela (Abigail Gilster) and her employer, poster-shop owner Rachel (Allyson Womack), had me increasingly restless as I looked down the lengthy cast list and thought: "Isn't it about time for another character to come along?"

It turned out almost everything else in "Lightning and Jellyfish" is a series of monologues by characters recalling their experience over the years with Angela. The structure of the play made sense as the scenes unfolded — a parade of figures in Angela's life, addressing the audience in front of the cluttered poster-shop wall,  from shortly after the time of the first scene to well into her adulthood.

Still, the first scene seemed overloaded with exposition and fresh revelations of life milestones that both Rachel and Allyson must face. It needed more tension built into the pacing. Except for a few accelerated passages, all the first-scene dialogue adhered to the same tempo. With a few well-placed pauses, director Sam Fain could have turned the screws of affection and conflict between the two tighter. Such a brief hiatus didn't occur until the girls sat down to recall an encounter with French Canadian tourists.

Angela's obsession with truthtelling, at first focused on her boss, apparently  unsettles almost everyone else she comes in contact with. The monologues riveted the attention, but the range of similarly ill-at-ease people robbed their vastly different stories of variety. Only Angela's husband seems comfortable in his own skin — which is ironic considering what we learn became of him. (Character names were rarely used, and the cast list carried the note it was in alphabetical order, which it wasn't, so singling out any actor besides the two women in the first scene is difficult.)

Lou Harry's writing is typically assured and close to the nerve ends, but there is probably no way such writing with all its necessary pop-music references can avoid being dominated by them. I found myself hoping that wasn't Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" LP that Angela's boyfriend was walking out of the shop with near the end of the show. But I'm afraid it was.

At least it wasn't "Self-Portrait."