Julius by Design by Kara Lee Corthron is the first production by the Fulcrum Theater Company, which “supports NY based writers of color to match the demographic reality of New York City.” The company stresses that their “playwrights are made the artistic directors of their own work.” This put me on alert because I wasn’t sure what this would mean in terms of collaboration with a director. The best thing about Julius by Design is the writing, so Corthron being the artistic director definitely worked. Talented director Debbie Saivetz creates a poignant, flowing, entertaining production with the story clearly told. The play begins with Laurel (Mike Hodge), a rather portly middle-aged black man, sitting in his favorite spot on the couch attempting a crossword puzzle. Hodge is not only an actor but the president of the Screen Actors Guild, which isn’t surprising. Hodge ‘s presence as an actor, particularly his voice, captures attention, and for a quick moment you may be reminded of James Earl Jones. His wife, Jo (Suzanne Douglas), sits near him drawing a face on a pumpkin as the couple banters back and forth. Though this seems like a typical day in the life of this family, there is something seriously wrong. We, the audience, don’t discover this completely because Corthron craftily reveals little bits of information about the plot throughout the play, keeping the feeling of tension and surprise.
It’s been seven years and Laurel and Jo are trying to recover from the death of their only teenage son due to a robbery gone bad. While Jo desperately and optimistically searches out new friends, therapy groups, and pen pals in an effort to fill her painful void, Laurel would rather not have the company or be subjected to unrealistic hope.
Every single character in this play is suffering from loneliness and despondency in their own, often amusing, way. All need to move on with their lives. Crystal Finn as George, the door-to-door knife saleswoman, is both hysterical and empathetic. I found myself at times feeling guilty for laughing at her incongruities of low self-esteem, science geeky-ness, and desperation, but I just couldn’t help it.
Another colorful couple, also dealing with a more recent loss of a child, adds to the feeling of family that this despondent bunch starts to form. Max, played by Curran Connnor, as the tech savvy, devoid of emotion husband, and her ultra-depressed, over-medicated wife, Casey, impeccably played by Christianna Nelson, are a hoot and complement each other nicely.
Ethan (Johnny Ramey), who plays their son’s incarcerated murderer, is a very strong actor. A secret letter writing relationship between Ethan and Jo soon becomes the focal point of the play. Lines blur as Jo starts to get maternal and aids in Ethan’s parole, causing almost fatal friction between Laurel and herself. Ramey also plays Julius, the dead son, in flashbacks and other scenes. His characterization of the two roles are so specific that at first I thought there were two actors. Kudos to Corthron again for giving a very interesting twist when Jo finally meets Ethan and sees what he’s really like as opposed to her impression of him through the letters.
What is missing a bit is the journey for the character Jo (Douglas). Douglas could dig a little deeper into the heart of the role, particularly in her connections to her husband Laurel. Throughout the play Jo is generally tormented and flutters about, but she seems to remain tormented in the same vein despite the changes she’s making throughout the play.
Sound design by Rodrigo Espinosa Lozano adds just the right effect to signify jail scenes in particular. On occasion the sound level is a little distracting, particularly when the TV runs during scenes. Lighting design by Scot Bolman is simple and effective for the three locations. The scenic designer Mikio Suzuki McAdams’s modest practical set works well, and I was glad to see that that no furniture was being moved on and off.
This play’s theme deals with an extremely painful situation, the loss of a child, but it’s also extremely funny and poignant. Saivetz and the talented cast keep energized and on track, so you won’t leave the theater feeling depressed.