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Monday, April 27, 2015

Review: ‘The Realization of Emily Linder’ at New Jersey Repertory Company at Long Branch

 

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THE REALIZATION OF EMILY LINDER written by Richard Strand and directed by SuzAnne Barabas

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney    April 25, 2015

The first realization of the evening comes when Producer Gabor Barabas welcomes the audience, informing them that New Jersey Rep has given life to 106 new plays; a truly remarkable achievement. The realization revealed by the title character in Richard Strand's new play is quite a different matter: she knows she is going to die. Not just a foreboding feeling of fatality, mind you, but the exact date and time of her demise. And it's soon.

As the play begins, retired academic Emily (Marnie Andrews) is coming home from the hospital after having all of her toes amputated. Just why this drastic measure was taken we never quite learn, but the former French professor has quickly bounced back to her usual irascible self. She is accompanied by her two 40-something daughters: a wan housewife named Margaret (Dana Benningfield) who tearily retreats to her old bedroom when things get tense; and her uptight sister Janet (Corey Tazmania), a tightly-wound lawyer who strides around barking orders into her cell phone. Janet brings along Jennifer, her mother's new care-giver (Jenny Vallancourt), at first introduced as Janet's new assistant. For most of the first act Jennifer sits quietly in a corner reading Proust. 

Soon after Emily announces her imminent demise she assigns her daughters a list of tasks to accomplish before her death. (Emily abhors euphemisms like “passed away” and “goes to her reward” so I will eschew them as well.) In addition to writing her eulogy and obituary, Emily insists that Janet retrieve her recently amputated toes, leaving the audience to wonder about her mental stability. Lots of stage time is spent on the completion of the 'bucket list' tasks and it becomes clear that Strand is more interested in the dysfunctional family dynamic than Emily's prescient predictions or its outcome. Just before intermission the mousy Jennifer turns into a youthful Nurse Ratched and yet another dynamic is introduced.

At times the script is darkly reminiscent of Marsha Norman's “'night, Mother” and at other times it exudes the funny familial friction of “On Golden Pond.” The last ten minutes of the play finally get around to explaining several key plot questions – mainly surrounding the Proust-reading carer in the corner. Strand's writing often meanders around its central themes and ultimately never fully gives Emily the firm foothold she needs on the intriguing play. 

The well-spoken Andrews is appropriately patrician as the title character and there is more than a passing physical resemblance between Benningfield and Tazmania, adding greatly to their sister act. Vallancourt at first seems way too young and mousy for her role, but Strand puts the pieces together in the play's final moments that make sense of the incongruities. Due to Emily's toe-less immobility, the action of the play is mainly restricted to a pair of front-facing recliners, but they are set amidst a smartly-appointed Iowa City living room designed by Jessica Parks.

As Barabas introduces the evening's fare he reminds us that very soon NJ Rep will have three productions on area stages simultaneously: “Butler” (also by Strand) at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts, “Dinner With The Boys” (by Dan Lauria) off-Broadway at the Acorn Theatre, and “The Realization of Emily Linder” here in Long Branch. Add to that the company's recent announcement that they have purchased a brand new building to house their theatrical incubator and the realization is clear – NJ Rep is one of New Jersey's most valuable cultural assets. 

THE REALIZATION OF EMILY LINDER directed by SuzAnne Barabas, continues through May 24 at NJ Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch NJ. For tickets and information visit www.njrep.org or call 732.229.3166.

Photo: Marnie Andrews (seated), Corey Tazmania (dark suit), Dana Benningfield (standing behind chair), Jenny Vallancourt (background, seated) photo by SuzAnne Barabas

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