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Everyone has hurdles to overcome, but playwright Wendy Hammond really stacks the deck against her main characters in Julie Johnson. These Hoboken housewives not only have to deal with abusive partners, unruly kids, financial woes, and nasty smoking habits but they're uneducated (one can't even balance a checkbook) and openly attracted to one another a definite no-no in their neighborhood.
And Hammond's script presents its own set of obstacles that need to be resolved to avoid being perceived as anything other than an overwrought domestic drama. The biggest problem: jarring emotional and personality shifts. The protagonist goes from being stoic to superhorny overnight; the object of her affection is at first repelled, then suddenly responsive to her advances; and her two daughters bounce back and forth from mild obedience to outright belligerence.
That isn't to say the play, which in 2001 was made into a movie starring Lili Taylor, Spalding Gray, and Courtney Love, is without merit. Although the story line might not be as shocking as it was during its first production at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival in 1994, Julie Johnson's plot, focusing on best friends turned lesbian lovers, addresses some intriguing topics. Do abusive husbands drive women into one another's arms? How do you conduct a same-sex affair without the kids or the neighbors knowing? Can women with little or no career skills turn their lives around?
Unfortunately, all of these issues can seem moot in today's computer-savvy world. Time has not been kind to the play, though; if it weren't for a few pop culture references thrown into this particular production (Saw 2, Desperate Housewives) to up the hip quotient, it could possibly work as a period piece.
What really needs to happen, though, to make the production at the Sol Theatre Project more credible is that the performance level needs to be taken down a notch. The theater group produces shows in such an intimate venue that almost everything in the play is executed with the subtlety of a brick in the face. Director David Tarryn-Grae has his cast playing for the back row, which in this case is a sofa ten feet away.
There are some effective moments during the production. Tarryn-Grae handles a scene with the two newly consummated lovers talking dirty in a public park with sensitivity and skill. The schoolgirl flirting between Julie and Claire turns into a hot and heavy verbal tryst and ends in mutual caressing, despite the threat of being caught by passersby out walking their dogs. This unbridled burst of passion is one of the few times when the interaction between the friends feels organic and natural, prompting the audience to actually root for these ladies to succeed in their "forbidden" relationship.
The director also orchestrates, with comic precision, a satisfyingly funny scene in which the women down goblets of wine in single slurps.
As for the cast members, they seem to have a hard time handling the histrionics, overplaying them more often than not. They are, however, more successful at bonding and mining the material for humor. Kim Ehly portrays Julie as a determined tomboy who can barely contain herself once she reveals her sexual longing for her female friend. As her daughters, Magen Young and Lexie Gaeta often seem like the adults in the house. Both of them have awkward outbursts that seem out of character, but the actresses do their best to justify their characters' conflicted attitudes toward their mom. Steven Chambers is alternately believable and bumbling as the authoritative teacher who encourages Julie to better herself. Most effective is Julia Clearwood as Claire, who embraces her Jersey Girl persona and brings welcome dollops of humor to the proceedings.
On the technical front, Robert Hooker provides competent set design, which juxtaposes Julie's living room and the night school. Lighting by Jeff Holmes is limited and especially shadowy when the blocking is downstage. Holmes also collaborates with Marc Scott on the sound, which includes an evocative soundtrack. Now, if only the action onstage could take a cue from the subdued musical selections.