Sunday, May 30, 2021

Home burial: In 'The House That Jack Built,' a riven family struggles to find closure — or not

The experience of having streaming access to theater under the current pandemic conditions presents nagging temptations to critic and patron alike.

Granted media access to cover Indiana Repertory Theatre's season, I have a time-limited opportunity to see such a show as "The House That Jack Built," a new production of playwright-in-residence James Still's 2012 drama, the first of a prize-winning trilogy. A paying patron might well take advantage of repeat viewings, in whole or in part. For me, it's almost a matter of conscience: Shouldn't I allow myself only one real-time exposure to a play before writing about it, just as I would have to do when I used to attend opening nights in person?

But then, memory is imperfect and first impressions have an unevenness or a teasing ambiguity to them. Why not go back and firm up anything that might be blurry in recollection? Isn't that more responsible? Exit full-screen mode, take the mouse and swipe left, picking up an episode or two in order to put your interpretation on solid ground.

Converted and expanded from a shed, the house is a ready host.

The  dilemma seems especially pronounced in the case of this play, in which a family struggles with both good and bad memories and the difficulty of exorcising unwelcome spirits. They have come back to the rural Vermont dwelling of the title, whose named figure is missing in a manner we learn about far into the drama's intricate progress. It's a Thanksgiving celebration set in the year Still wrote it. That means there are ritual aspects to the observance that resonate against unresolved difficulties among the host and her guests. Russell Metheny's set leads the blend of sight and sound that offers the promise of hard-earned domesticity under threat.

A British transplant of receding celebrity as a cookbook author, Jules (Jennifer Johansen) lives there, missing Jack most crucially, yet ready to exercise her culinary skills for family once again. She has taken up with Eli (Aaron Kirby), a young man who a while back drifted into the area from the west and lacks her thwarted sense of purpose. The relationship rubs her sister-in-law Lulu (Constance Macy) the wrong way, but then, lots of things do. 

Apart from being settled into marriage with fellow academic Ridge (David Shih), a math professor who's just been promoted, Lulu is at perpetual loggerheads with her mother, Helen (Jan Lucas), who lives nearby and seems annoyingly open to fresh starts in life and impulsive behavior. Airline rescheduling has kept one expected guest away, but otherwise the family is tensely ready to feast together. Outside, there's a cranky neighbor apt to train his rifle on wanderers and a seasonal Green Mountain tendency to thick morning fogs. The house is, ironically, a kind of refuge.

Sisters-in-law Jules and Lulu bond outside over a joint.

This seems a good place to mention one instance where I resisted the temptation to rewind. Ridge is a bluff, hearty fellow buoyed by his fresh professional boost to department chairman. When Helen says something characteristically opinionated — "I think style is the man, don't you agree?" and adds that men are ruined "when they peak too soon," Ridge's reaction startled me. 


Shih's expression was among many instances of astutely calibrated responses throughout the cast, as directed by Janet Allen. I thought he

Ridge comes across as witty, confident, hiding vulnerability.

made Ridge seem stricken by Helen's provocative insight, but maybe I was reading into it; perhaps Ridge is simply thinking, "Hmm, I hadn't thought of that" or even "Well, that's just like Lulu's mother." I wanted to play that fairly minor moment again, but resisted. I'm leaning toward interpreting the character's sudden emotional pallor as indicating he has been deeply shaken by Helen's remark. It's certainly part of Still's brilliance as a playwright to plant landmines cunningly and have them triggered in due course. I choose to think this was one of them, skillfully detonated by Shih under Allen's guidance.

Here's what "The House That Jack Built" underlines: Everything in both the light-hearted and the wounding moments can be traced back to Jack's absence. There are ample signs that none of the characters has found the freedom to move forward. The cliche of finding closure is a goal they may have given up; closure for them is probably illusory, just another bad or simply fruitless choice. As survivors struggling to help themselves, they seem variously blocked from helping one another. 

I was reminded of two bits of popular literature, both relevant as touchstones but philosophically daunting when applied to "The House That Jack Built": One is the English nursery rhyme of the same title, a cumulative song that used to enchant kids with the surprising lessons of cause and effect. The other is "Home," a sentimental dialect poem by Edgar A. Guest beginning "It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home." 

Looked at through the prism of this play, neither text is as playful, instructive, or blatantly sentimental as usually known. They are both nightmares of determinism, in which homes and houses inevitably provide scenarios for mocking free will and prioritizing the adamant way things are. Acceptance of what is given is the ground rule. And because Jack's absence rests on a larger disturbing event, the play is a dark reminder that it will always be difficult for individuals to shape what happens to them, either at or away from home, and to discover how they can transcend it. 

After much tribulation, the Thanksgiving feast gets under way.

Fortunately, and without overstressing the point, "The House That Jack Built" indicates that the best way forward is through love. In life we don't get the advantage of playback anyway, because even our fondest, most secure memories may be traps, inhibiting growth.

Through this season-ending production, Still and IRT's production have sprung those traps for us and Jack's family. The final toast around the Thanksgiving table confirms the possibility of a healthy escape.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


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