The last show I saw in person in March 2020 before the complete shut-down was “The Realistic Joneses” at Spooky Action Theater. Last night I returned to see Spooky’s first in-person show of the season—and yes, it is “The Realistic Joneses.” I’m pleased to say—quite pleased in fact—that it was as engrossing as the first time. Given that the show is roughly one hour and 50 minutes straight through, on Spooky’s notoriously limp-cushioned chairs, that is a testament to both the writing and the actors.
This show is a privilege to see. It was pure joy to see such an ensemble cast bring it to life so sparingly and in such a raw way.
The action takes place in a small Southern town which happens to have a renowned doctor specializing in a rare disease called HLS. Just live with this coincidence. Both of the male characters have this disease, and both are named Jones. It’s actually a pretty easy coincidence to swallow because that’s the end of the magical realism in this play.
How do we deal with the end of things as we know them? At heart, that’s the question being asked. How do we try to protect the ones we love from unpalatable truths? How do they try to protect us? When instincts and actions clash, how do we reconcile hurt and pain and fear and learn to trust even deeper? At its core, this is a play about intimacy and the roads to get there.
It’s also eerily relevant to the last nearly two years. Many are floundering with trying to find a way through a pandemic that waxes and wanes with each new variant and with the conflicting push-pull of the old norm vs. change. It’s a change that’s been forced on us which is harder. Like Jennifer (Lisa Hodsoll), many people learn everything they can and become cheerleaders for positivity, trying to influence outcomes. Others, like Bob (Todd Scofield), her husband, remain removed from the nuts and bolts, trying to figure out who they are now while shutting in on themselves.
Then there’s the new neighbors, the new Joneses—Dan Crane as John (and his profile is pure Richard Gere, with the high, flat cheekbones) and his wife Pony (Kimberly Gilbert). They are an odd couple. Initially they are so annoying that one wonders how desperate Bob and Jennifer are for someone to pierce their self-imposed bubble. It isn’t until about an hour in in the play that what is suspected is confirmed—John has HLS too, and he hasn’t confided in his wife.
By the way, nature-lovers take heart. It seems being surrounded by trees, water, and wildlife really does help with people’s acceptance and coping skills. Although Pony’s reaction to a dead squirrel is truly funny, it makes one grateful she didn’t see, say, a fox. She and the fox might have had nervous breakdowns.
Hodsoll and Scofield are incredible together. They completely embody the way long-married couples sometimes don’t really see each other anymore while still desiring a deeper connection and yo be understood. Their love is subtly portrayed, and so is their learning to give up pre-conceived roles and trust each other in new ways.
Gilbert is a hoot. Her Pony may well be the most ADHD person on the planet. Her conversational twists are dizzying, and she’s almost constantly in motion. But she’s no one-note, self-involved pest. Gilbert finds the underlying fear, guilt, and frustration in herself that informs so much of her public self.
In John, she has found her center. He is so determined to protect her, he unintentionally shuts her out, and she finds a very unconventional way to deepen their commitment. In some ways, Crane has the most difficult role. It’s obvious his snarkiness, sarcasm, and verbal challenges (he’s an expert at putting people off-stride) are defenses. But it’s his gradual change in his attempted protection of Pony—-from underestimating her to accepting her as a full partner on the journey—that is a master class in itself. No fireworks, just genuine stop-and-start change.
Gillian Drake directs this fine ensemble cast with a light touch. The pacing is unhurried but never lags. Movement director Robert Bowen Smith uses the staging (two double platforms that stand in for the houses and decks, tall wooden tree trunks, four cut off tree trunks as seats around a fire pit, and three diagonal exits against a backdrop of mountains and sky—all designed by Giorgos Tsappas) to mimic the ups and downs of the characters’ arcs. Sound design is by Gordon Nimmo-Smith and is at times subliminal as when you’re daydreaming in a forest, and at other times, captures what HLS feels like inside the brain. Lighting designer Alberto Segarra takes us between night, evening, and day, and somehow between light and forest shade—or maybe it’s the combination of the writing and lighting that evokes such mind images.
Robert Croghan designed the costumes and his costumes for Pony are inspired. They reflect her scattered, unconventional exterior and racing mind without falling into caricature.
I was a little hesitant to see “The Realistic Joneses” again so soon after seeing it the first time at Spooky Action Theater, but am very glad I did. Perhaps it is the reality of the last nearly two years. But this time, the play rang even truer and deeper than before. I had forgotten how provocative the writing is, and how what is unsaid is so important. The conversational stutters reflect how so often people struggle to say what they really think and feel and how held back people can be—by convention, by fear of hurting someone, by socialization, and by fear of being misunderstood and cast out. It was pure joy to see such an ensemble cast bring it to life so sparingly and in such a raw way. This show is a privilege to see.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes without an intermission.
Show Advisory: Some adult language, elliptical talk of suicide.
“The Realistic Joneses” runs through October 24, 2021 and in-person at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20009. For more information, please click here.