Joan Beber’s Dear Jane centers on twin sisters, Julie and Jane, but, in spite of the title, Julie is the focus. Beber’s drama is structured as though Julie (Jenny Piersol) is rehearsing a play about her own life—which she is the star of. Scenes and flashbacks occur from the present to as far back as 1952, and take place in California, New York and the resort town of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Julie’s thoughts read like a series of letters between her and her beloved sister.
Beber’s structure, however, presents a challenge to the audience. The plot is non-linear and disjointed, jumping from 1952 to 2017 as Julie tries to make sense of, or discover some profound creative meaning in, her fragmented existence as a painter, writer, political activist, mother, and victim of an abusive relationship. Events do not fully develop, and they do not succinctly build upon one another. When flashbacks are introduced, they create abrupt distractions.
Beber’s program note says that Dear Jane is about her and her identical twin sister, who died 10 years ago. Even as a character study, the significance of Julie’s life is not convincing enough, and she does not have a powerful or inspiring legacy that many can identify with. Overall, Dear Jane feels as if Beber, who is better known as a visual artist in Southern California, intended to write a play about her personal life with the hope that it would touch others.
Any universal message that Beber is trying to convey is undermined by the awkward structure. For instance, Julie suddenly becomes an advocate for model prisoner and San Quentin death-row inmate Tommy Thompson (Jon Kovach), whom she believes was framed. This event gets lost amid all of the other sporadic snippets from Julie’s life that are thrown together.
Beber’s take on the death penalty—or even Tommy’s convictions for rape and murder—is not fully explored. Whether Julie, a rape victim, somehow connects to the convicted rapist Tommy, and if so, in what way, is nebulous. Tommy’s high-profile case in California and death by lethal injection are used more as a device to add social relevance, particularly to scenes set through the 1980s, when the issue was bubbling in the zeitgeist. If Julie has any hidden intentions for forming a bond with Tommy, they are never truly revealed, apart from a common interest in English literature, especially Shakespeare.
Some elements are also shopworn. For instance, a Hare Krishna chanting scene, when Julie says, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” is a stereotypical satiric scene of Eastern philosophy and touchie-feely practitioners. Beber attempts to add some substance to the scene by ending it with a borrowed quote from Nobel Peace Prize–winner and philosopher Albert Schweitzer: “The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found ways to serve.”
Director Katrin Hilbe has cast a talented ensemble of actors who must nevertheless play multiple age ranges during different decades, and their efforts are not believable. The changes in hair, makeup and costumes by Lara de Bruijn are generally minor, bland or unrecognizable. The talented cast is left without life vests as they try to keep this punctured piece afloat.
At the end, there’s a strikingly effective moment, however. Julie and Jane are in Puerta Vallarta in 2017 with Nina, Julie’s granddaughter (Holly Cinnamon) and Jaxon, Julie’s grandson (Brandon Timmons). Julie is finishing writing her play. The ensemble starts to sing “I believe” and Julie sings, in a high soprano, “I believe... I believe oh ye--ee---es. I do believe,” and then the ensemble joins in. Unfortunately, their beautiful voices are not enough to save this production from itself.
Joan Beber’s Dear Jane runs through Aug. 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theater Row (410 West 42nd St. between Dyer Ave. and Ninth Ave.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets cost between $51.25 and $61.25. To purchase tickets, call Telecharge (800) 447-7400 or visit dearjanetheplay.com.