“Jennifer Who is Leaving,” a dramedy written and directed by Morgan Gould, hits all the right notes, deftly blending slice-of-life comedy with some deeply sobering realities about what goes on behind the closed doors of the various lives inhabiting this play. Taking place entirely inside of a New England Dunkin’ Donuts during a snowstorm, the play pulls no punches in terms of the darker (and disappointing) inner lives of its two central characters, but still somehow manages not to take itself too seriously.
…hits all the right notes, deftly blending slice-of-life comedy with some deeply sobering realities…If this play is any indication, the festival is doing an excellent job of introducing fresh, vibrant, and highly talented voices to DC area audiences.
The play opens with Nan (Nancy Robinette), a put-upon, silver-lining-seeking, night shift employee of the aforementioned Dunkin. She is on the phone with her husband Chuck, a retiree who can’t seem to find anything nor perform daily household chores without Nan’s constant intervention. This phone conversation gives audiences a glimpse of what Nan is all about: always doing for others lest they have to do for themselves—namely, doing for Chuck. There is also Joey (Floyd King) and the titular Jennifer (Kimberly Gilbert).The former is an elderly man suffering from dementia who is under the care of his nurse, Jennifer. Jennifer, apparent right from the start, has had it with the antics of her surly and at times obnoxious patient. Finally, the entrance of Lily (Annie Fang), a teenager panicked about her upcoming SATs and disgruntled about having to come in for her shift (and having to work at Dunkin at all) rounds out the show’s cast.
The storyline weaves itself in and out of these characters’ lives, offering penetrating insights into what drives these four people ostensibly stranded in a roadside donut shop. Gould cleverly brings together all relevant generations in a small space that seems to get smaller as the play goes on—think, a verbal (and at times physical) sort of cage match for the disillusioned and misbegotten. Gould hits on some difficult themes here and does so with an in-your-face starkness that also frequently tips its hat toward poignant subtlety. From the “trap” of traditional gender roles to the dichotomy between blue and white-collar ways of life to the realities surrounding an aging Baby Boomer population, Gould’s production doesn’t shy away from tough topics and how we talk about them. It is a terrific coup on her part as both writer and director. Add in some perfectly placed singing and dancing (much-needed moments of letting loose for these characters), and “Jennifer Who is Leaving” hits some pretty fabulous notes. Nan’s “Dancing Queen” tribute is…all I can say is, Meryl, eat your heart out.
Nancy Robinette is the heartbeat of this production. With her, you can’t help but laugh, cry, and tear your hair out. Robinette’s Nan suffers fools gladly and so convincingly. The actor’s talents are vast, and here, they are on full display. Kimberly Gilbert, as the eponymous Jennifer, portrays the long-suffering nurse-mother-wife with both unbridled anger and a too-soft heart—a tricky blend but one that Gilbert pulls off with incredible skill. It is thrilling to watch the arc of this character’s spiral as handled by Gilbert. Annie Fang as Lily truly brings this Gen Z ambassador to life—at times filterless but always seemingly well-intentioned. Floyd King in the role of Joey expertly manages to teeter between obnoxious and earnest. His voice is often the wake-up call the rest of the characters didn’t realize they needed.
Paige Hathaway’s set design is the inside of a Dunkin Donuts and absolutely spot on. Emma Deane’s lighting, along with Justin Schmitz’s sound design, help to create a somewhat whimsical space but also one marked by that “closing in on you” feel mentioned earlier. Round House Theatre’s production values here are incredibly well done. “Jennifer Who is Leaving” is a part of the National Capital New Play Festival—an event designed to cultivate new voices in theatre. If this play is any indication, the festival is doing an excellent job of introducing fresh, vibrant, and highly talented voices to DC area audiences.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Jennifer Who is Leaving” runs through May 7, 2023 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are required for some performances (see website), regardless of vaccination status, except while eating or drinking in the lobby café area.