Dallas — Len Jenkin’s plays have the startling ability to put us in two places at once.
From Port Twilight, to Time in Kafka and his other plays presented at Undermain Theatre over the years, his characters move easily from present to past, often inhabiting both spaces in the time it takes to cross the stage. We follow raptly, trusting our guide’s balance. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov describes this act of compressing time to the vanishing point like this: “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” The freefall of timelessness induces a kind of joyful insight and gratitude, he says, “to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to the tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” Jenkin pulls this trick off in three dimensions.
How Is It that We Live or Shakey Jake + Alice is Jenkin’s newest work, directed once more by Artistic Director Katherine Owens in its world premiere at Undermain. Here, the arc of time seems at first to be moving in a strictly Aristotelian order. We follow two lovers, Shakey Jake (Jim Jorgensen) and Alice (Shannon Kearns), from their high school beginnings, making out under the River Road Bridge in a rainstorm, through their middle years of break-up, messy complications and reunion, and on to the end we all know is coming when the house lights went down 90 minutes earlier.
But wait! As Jake and Alice confess their youthful hopes and fears to each other in the bright white square of the present front and center, we are entranced by the rich golden moon projected on the back scrim of John Arnone’s perfectly simple set and lighting design. The magical tin-foil wrapped trees glitter between the fat concrete columns wrapped in plain black linen, surrounding our lovers with ample darkness. As the ex-cheerleader and high school bad-boy writhe in passion, a chatty man with a peg leg and a red velvet coat emerges from the darkness. He tells the startled couple, who he seems to know intimately, that he’s Clarence Nightingale (Bruce DuBose), and we note that this clown or tramp at the edge of the town is also the genial narrator who introduced us to this classic couple at the outset. Hmm.
Clarence, who’s lost his job as a fancy doorman, bitches about losing his peg leg to a beaver, and his beloved wife Evangeline (Danielle Georgiou, appearing later as Snake Hips and Little Sister) to a troupe of raccoons in the woods. When he starts another tale about being a blind spy, Jake points out that he’s not blind. “That was another time; people change,” says Clarence, referring to some earlier narrator incarnation we begin to recognize.
Too, that fleeing wife glimpsed in the woods looks awfully like the curvy babe in Chaplinesque costume commenting on the action and helping Clarence move tables and chairs during scene changes. How many times have this pair set a table for two with wine and whatever? Sweetly and sometimes comically, they bring a playful quality to this play about mortal live and loves. We’ve been there and done that, they seem to indicate, and it’s all still quite marvelous.
As the particular fate of earthy, artistic, maternal Alice and vagabond, questing Jake’s love affair plays out in three distinct scenes, the mysteriously familiar man and spirited woman appear at crucial moments, with funny stories or a word of caution. “Who the hell was that?” shaken Jake asks at one point. Sometimes, too, Jake becomes less shaky and sees the world around him steadily, along with the sudden brief vision of eternal youth in the form of a young man rowing a canoe or a beautiful girl seen briefly before the train passes by. Over and again, as they move back toward each other through grad school let-downs and soul-crushing temp jobs, Alice and Jake look up to the star-besotted skies or to the moonlit river and find a reassuring moment of timelessness themselves.
Kearns’ completely realized Alice holds the arc of the play in place, from her hip-shakin’ dancing to her teen idol Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” at the beginning, through her gritty, magnetic desire as a divorced mother drawn again to her old lover; and as the beauteous aging caretaker, ever humorous and practical, pouring bourbon against doctor’s orders in the face of death.
Lean and lanky Jorgensen’s Shakey Jake is all skinny muscle and on-the-run male nerves as the bebop owner of a loaded ’68 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, but then touchingly evokes the dismay of the wanderer and army veteran stumbling back toward his beginnings. Jorgensen’s forthright, flesh-bound Jake brings a comic counterpoint to the exaggerated style and tales of the two ephemeral narrators, especially DuBose’s dapper Clarence.
DuBose is a deceptively charming Clarence Nightingale, whose hobo outfits and ridiculous Santa make him an object of laughter and charity. His stylish recitation of Longfellow’s lines from “Hiawatha” are hilarious, and his crazy tales sung in the night make him a totally unreliable narrator. Or is he?
Dancer and choreographer Danielle Georgiou makes her Undermain stage debut as the sexy, vaudeville-clad Snake Hips, the eternal other woman, always illusive and ever at the edge of the seduction scene. Wiggling to the music or turning her dark, come-hither eyes on Jake, Georgiou brings a nymph-like sensuality to Snake Hips, both sweetly youthful and wildly reckless.
Throughout the show, Paul Semrad’s subtle, evocative sound design keeps us cued to time and mood. We hear bits of pop songs, strains of Sam Cook’s “Bring It on Home” and other less familiar lullabies and ditties, sometimes sung by the cast.
The play’s title asks a question about how people manage to live out their lives together. Owens once more draws a lyrical, touching and distinctly American answer from her remarkable cast and Jenkin’s time-teasing love story.