On today’s stage, the historical play is somewhat of a rare beast, especially in a town like Austin, where the modern pieces tend to reign. Writers David Mixner and Dennis Bailey look to buck this trend with “Jacob’s Ladder” a journey into the heart of World War II, where we meet a group of people touched hugely by the war in different, but nonetheless important, ways. Derek Kolluri takes this clever little script and gives it a lush, period-perfect production, thanks in part to his wonderful production team, who help to take us back the days of the 1940s, where big band and paranoia ruled in equal measure.
“Jacob’s Ladder” drops us right in the heart of the World War II White House, as we follow newly-hired Oval Office aid Jacob, as he comes to terms with being Jewish in a time where his people were being burned alive in Europe. His struggles to keep his composure and do his job while his people go through so much turmoil half a world away creating a fascinating tension, and Zach Kleinsmith plays him as a fine window character for our audience, injecting a nice sense of everyman empathy into the role that makes his plight that much more harrowing.
One of the the real stars of the show here is Johanna Whitmore as Patsy, a brassy, sarcastic she-devil, whose quips and snark make for some of the best moments of the piece. She walks on to the stage like the magical lovechild of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis, playing off her cast like an old hand. Since she slings the sarcasm with such ease, when her emotional moments come to call, they hit with that much more power, her tears creating a crack in our very hearts. It’s a star turn by Whitmore, which should prove a great stepping stone for the rest of her career.
Also turning in amazing work is Jay Fraley as the stern and sturdy military man Welles. Always the taciturn stoneface, it’s a delight to see Fraley’s interactions with Whitemore, as their tete-a-tetes play like the most intriguing matches of tennis. Welles is a character of principles, and there is never a moment, despite his bluster, that we doubt his authenticity. He makes an excellent foil to the glad-handing Morganthau, played with classy charisma by Tom Byrne, as his fierce determination to keep his principles balances well with Byrne’s secretive nature.
Most of the plays in Theatre En Bloc’s canon try to touch on something importat, and “Jacob’s Ladder” is no different. Taking us into a world that now seems to foreign to us, we are thrust headfirst into the life of a persecuted people fighting a fierce battle for their rights, something that will ring true as much to people in today’s culture as did in the 1940s. It’s more than just its message however, as the writers package their play with plenty of laughs as well as a pathos, giving its audience a good time while sending them home with plenty to think about, and Derek Kolluri and company are able to keep this balance well.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is playing though April 19th at the Boyd Vance Theatre at the George Washington Carver Museum. For more information, visit Theatre En Bloc’s website at theatreenbloc.org
Photo Courtesy of Theatre en Bloc