Review by Kelly MacBlane
After attending Oil Lamp Theater’s production of Jake’s Women last weekend, I had the privilege of sharing drinks with some fellow theater professionals, giving us the opportunity to talk about the show we had just seen.
“Was that really a Neil Simon play?” someone asked.
‘It wasn’t really like any Neil Simon play I can remember,” another voice answered.
“What would you even call it? A comedy? A drama?” said a third person.
It was amazing that all of us, with decades of collective theater experience between us, couldn’t figure these questions out. However, the consensus among the group was that the Oil Lamp Theater had taken an obscure, atypical Neil Simon piece and created a great evening of theater.
Jake’s Women is in fact a play written by Neil Simon and was first produced on Broadway in 1992. The story centers around Jake (Dennis Schnell), a writer in a struggling marriage. As he tries to come to terms with the challenges he has with his current wife, Maggie (April Taylor), he finds himself visited, sometimes in person and sometimes through his imagination, by the other important women in his life. His deceased first wife, Julie (Devri Chism), his sister Karen (Whitney Minarik), his daughter Molly at age 12 (Emrose Seidenberg) and as an adult (Abby Walburn), a new girlfriend, Shelia (Catrina Evans) and of course, his shrink, Edith (Beth Goldberg) all visit. Throughout the show, Jake tries to understand his relationship with all of these women and how these complicated relationships have gotten him to the situation he finds himself in with Maggie.
The Oil Lamp Theater in Glenview brings the charm of a Chicago storefront theater into the suburbs and provides the intimate setting this type of show needs. Before the show and at intermission, patrons lounge in comfy chairs and couches in an eclectic parlor type lobby while enjoying fresh cookies and BYOB beverages. The theater itself only seats 60 and I felt as if I was sitting right in the middle of Jake and Maggie’s living room, watching the drama unfold before me.
Director Josh Johson did a superb job of staging in the small space and in bringing out the best in his actors. Each of the actresses playing the women in Jake’s life created beautiful and distinct characters. I found them all to be particularly believable and endearing in their own ways. I especially enjoyed the contrast Taylor and Chism created between Jake’s two wives. Chism’s Julie is of course only a memory to Jake as she passed away many years before so Chism appears perfect, starting the show as Jake’s young sweetheart but as Jake remembers her in different times in their relationship, I could feel Julie’s personality changing and the anguish and guilt she struggled with by not being able to be a mother to her daughter. The moment when Jake imagines Julie and the adult Molly together is very powerful. Taylor’s Maggie, Jake’s wife in the present, on the other hand, is much more real and raw. The pain Maggie feels over the disintegration of her marriage to Jake is extremely compelling. And the ending, which of course, I won’t give away, led to many additional conversations during my post show discussion.
Where is the comedy, the Neil Simon in all of this you ask? Mainly it comes through some of the other women in Jake’s life, in particular his sister and shrink. Minarik’s Karen finds herself often at the mercy of her brother’s mind, literally popping in when he needs advice and always at the whim of how Jake wants to imagine her- as only a brother would love to do to tease his sister. She offers him advice throughout as does the sassy and honest Edith. Goldberg has played on every stereotype you might have of a psychologist and it’s perfect. Evans, Seidenburg and Walburn all provide additional insights, laughs and poignant moments as some of the other women in Jake’s life.
Last but not least of course is Jake, the maestro of all that happens in this play. Schnell takes on an extremely challenging role with strength and courage. Jake is onstage throughout the entire show, often the sole manipulator of the action and dialogue going on around him. Schnell handles this wonderfully, remaining engaged and energized throughout. The change the audience witnesses in Schnell as Jake realizes he is losing Maggie and with the loss of a second wife, also the loss of his sanity. What had been a relatively calm and witty Jake in act one transforms into a frantic, desperate Jake in act two. Schnell’s transformation throughout the show is magnificent and elicits all kinds of emotions from the audience- sympathy, anger, annoyance- but in the end, I was rooting for Jake.
One thing I have loved most about my job as a critic is discovering new theaters all over the Chicagoland area. The Oil Lamp Theater is no exception. I am happy to have stumbled on this suburban gem and after seeing Jake’s Women, look forward to more productions at this space.
Jake’s Women is now playing at the Oil Lamp Theater, 1723 Glenview Road, Glenview, through March 1st. Performance times vary; check the website at Oil Lamp Theater. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and attheatreinchicago.com.