Story of a Life

Star worship is a funny thing. Why do people get so caught up in the lives of the privileged? And how do they choose the ones to lionize? As interesting as icons like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are to so many people, their film careers were short-lived. Dean, in particular, made only three films before he died: East of Eden was the only one to be released before his tragic death in 1955 from a motorcycle accident. Both Rebel Without a Cause, the film that fed his antihero image the most, and Giant were released posthumously. And his two Best Actor nominations—for Eden and Giant—largely stemmed from overriding public sentiment rather than critical fervor.

I went into Jamie...Another Side of Dean expecting some sort of enlightenment about a side of Dean that filmgoers never get to see. The play, written and directed by the ambitious George R. Carr, does not take that route, however, probably because of the overwhelming amount of biographical portraits that have appeared in the half-century since Dean's death. But I'm not convinced that the path Carr has chosen is much more illuminating.

Jamie takes place in a dance studio (the play itself is performed at the PMT Dance Studio) run by Katherine Dunham, the famed modern dance innovator, on the first anniversary of Dean's death. Dean (Mark McCullough Thomas) reappears to Eartha Kitt (Courtney Allen), who was his dance teacher before finding fame on her own. (According to Carr's play, she referred to him as Jamie rather than James.) What follows is a mishmash of scenes suggesting events that may have occurred. These nine scenes are supposed to represent key moments in Dean's life, but they never crystallize to offer a greater understanding of him.

For one thing, it is difficult to make sense of the syntax of these scenes. Since all of them take place on the same dance floor, with the small cast sitting in close proximity to one another, it is difficult to make the temporal jumps back and forth in time, and from one location to another. Further complicating matters is that two of the other actors in the play, Derrick Brenner and Natalia Klimas, play generic characters known as the Guy and the Girl. These are nondescript types who appear throughout Jamie in multiple encounters meant to tempt Dean in various situations.

I suppose these scenes are supposed to represent Dean's never-ending quest for love, but they appear too surreal to provide much insight into the actor's tormented, lovelorn condition. The scenes are awkward and only serve to strip the characters down physically rather than emotionally.

Denise Fiore and Jonathan Holtzman both recur in alternating sequences as Dean's mother and father, respectively, and these scenes make more sense. The scenes set in Dean's hometown of Fairmount, Ind., make clear the heavy impact his mother's death had on him, and Holtzman is particularly effective in bringing to life the torturous relationship Dean had with his father. No choice Dean made was ever rewarded with his approval.

Nonetheless, Carr's production seems to ramble instead of building up to a catharsis point. Each of the scenes feels as though it could benefit from some trimming. Unfortunately, other conditions in this venue didn't help: the lack of climate control in the dance studio made for a stifling atmosphere, and street traffic outside could constantly be heard throughout the show.

Thomas does an admirable job in the lead role. At first, I must admit to being distracted by an odd resemblance between him and Montgomery Clift, the brooding Method icon of the 1950s whom Dean supplanted in popularity. But it takes no time for Thomas to overcome this likeness, and, through a mastery of physical tricks, hunched shoulders, squinting eyes, and tall hair, he truly becomes Dean from the outside in. Brenner also makes a tricky role quite moving; he and Thomas share several intimate encounters onstage, and the two play their mutual attraction and awkwardness quite convincingly.

The women in the cast do not fare quite as well. Fiore's and Klimas's roles simply felt underwritten, but Allen seemed disengaged during her performance. She didn't project enough, rarely made eye contact, and lacked dynamism.

And so does Jamie itself, overall. In this case, a strikingly talented cast and an innovative creator clash, and James Dean's life gets lost in the shuffle.

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