In a downtown, fourth floor walkup very off-off Broadway space that is, ironically, actually on Broadway (the street that is) and as ironically named the Access Theatre, a new company—Fulcrum—dedicated to new works by writers of color, is making its debut with Julius by Design, by the not-insignificant Kara Lee Cothron, under the direction of Debbie Saivetz. Though upon entering the space, which has the not-uncommon black-box layout of a reconverted loft space (the specific configuration featuring rising seat units that provide 60 seats, with room for an additional 10 folding chairs), the minimalist and budget-conscious set design can evoke what I think of as the What am I doing in this hole-in-the-wall? response, it’s quickly dispelled when the stage lights come up on fussy, fidgety, optimistic Jo and her dour, placid overweight husband, Laurel—a middle aged married couple—here portrayed by Suzanne Douglas and Mike Hodge. What strikes you immediately is the assured professionalism of the performances and what very likely may strike you is the correct feeling that these are savvy, experienced veterans you’ve seen before (many theatre and screen credits between them). Clearly then, for all its modesty, Fulcrum means serious business.
As for fictional characters Jo and Laurel…they mean serious business too. Each in his/her own way is trying to cope with the murder of their college-age son several years ago. Laurel by introspection, nursing his memories and some anger at the killer; and Jo by holding a Thanksgiving gathering to which she has invited members of her group Grief Counseling sessions—also by secretly keeping up a correspondence with the imprisoned killer, having discovered (via a letter of remorse, regret and apology he wrote her soon after the trial) that far from being an animal, he’s a confused kid, no older than her son was, who got into something bigger than he could handle. (The son, as remembered by Laurel, and the prisoner, as imagined by Jo, are both portrayed by Johnny Ramey) Clearly a collision is brewing between husband and wife.
For all that this seems an outline for melodrama, Julius by Design is actually what the media pundits would call a dramedy, in which Ms. Cothron explores not only the process of grief, but the eccentricity of it. A trio of supporting characters (Crystal Finn, Christianna Nelson and Curran Connor) drawn to Jo’s maternal nature, themselves dealing with loss, would not be out of place in a higher-end sitcom. This is both refreshing and problematic, because there’s a mild incongruity of tone in the delivery—and moments where you’re very aware of Ms. Cothron exercising her writing muscles, making the effort to particularize.
Then again, with a play in its third performance of a world premiere engagement by a fledgling company making it their first offering…who expects flawlessness? If any venue is a legitimate lab for seeing the work on its feet, learning what works and doesn’t, in front of an audience not paying too much for the privilege and glad to be a part of the process, this is it. Mostly, Julius by Design is a sweet little play about characters you don’t mind “helping” through their crises…
And under the circumstances, what else is there to do, really, except recommend the evening, endorse the company and wish them all well…?
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