A Valiant Experiment, With Mixed Results
"Where do you tell your girlfriend you're going?"
Visions of Johanna
In my Top 10 List for this year, and in the Fringe-For-All coverage of this show's preview, I contended, and still do, that it's one of the lovelier pieces of writing on display in this year's festival. But it was written for two people. And it's being performed by one. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the inventions don't always work the way you hope they will.
You have to admire writer & performer Cole T. Walsh for his "show must go on" attitude. There were literally only a half dozen people in the audience (Mom and I were two of them). Halfway through the performance, we could all hear someone behind us walk out. That's gotta be tough for the person onstage. But Walsh didn't let it phase him. He kept performing, without a pause, for the meager audience who remained. This, with the bowling alley and restaurant/bar of the Bryant Lake Bowl just on the other side of the wall, and a rather powerful air conditioning system blowing through the vents. Walsh is a soft-spoken performer, perhaps a bit too soft-spoken, but thankfully we were all up close to the front to hear (and support) him.
The decision to go it alone by Walsh hindered him as much as I imagine it freed him. Having only himself to rely on, he got it all done. But having only himself to rely on, there was no outside eye or extra set of hands to offer him perspective on how to clarify and streamline his story for an audience.
Charlie (Walsh) and Johanna (also Walsh) are engaging in what they think is going to be a one-night stand when Charlie feels a lump on Johanna's body where a lump shouldn't be. The lump turns out to be cancerous, and Johanna needs to take a leave of absence from her teaching job to battle breast cancer. Charlie ends up taking permanent leave from his girlfriend, in order to be a supportive friend (and perhaps more) to Johanna as she fights her way toward remission.
Walsh employs some interesting tactics to differentiate his male and female characters in performance. The initial tumble in the dark which turns into a medical examination is clarified by costume. Walsh has a blue plaid button down shirt half on over a red V-neck pullover. Blue side, Charlie; red side, Johanna. Charlie departs, the blue shirt drops to the floor. Simple, but effective.
In several scenes of dialogue, we get the one character's side of the conversation from beginning to end, then double back to follow the other character's end of the scene from start to finish. While it feels like this might get old, it's actually a clever way of withholding information, and the second time through is always informed by the first. Since the scene was written originally for two, there's no explaining by one character what the other is saying, so that feeling of repetition doesn't manifest and weigh things down.
Silent scenes, like sitting in the doctor's waiting room, are also cycled through twice. Charlie flips through a magazine, sitting next to a purse, looking at someone who isn't there. Then the actor slips over to the other seat, and that purse is in Johanna's lap, and she looks over at the seat beside her where the magazine lies, and we see the other side of those pointed looks and nervous smiles.
Other tactics had more mixed outcomes - Mom thought the rolling back and forth across the stage between two separate phone calls worked. I wasn't as sure.
The facing one way/facing the other two-people-in-one approach didn't work as well for the argument scenes (though playing the whole scene through twice approach noted above probably wouldn't have worked in those moments either).
Confusion over who was calling who about what in a central moment, regarding someone else's funeral, really lost Mom. I only could follow it because I was familiar with the script.
The welcome vein of humor (both light and dark) kept the story nicely grounded, and real throughout. The line "It's your funeral" has never been quite so funny as it was here. In addition, Johanna has a wacky moment when she dresses up and pads her newly empty bra with rolls of toilet paper, stating to for the mirror's benefit "My old ones tried to kill me."
There's way too much shifting of furniture. The blackouts between scenes give the story a little necessary room to breathe, but also kill a little of the momentum. Since the stage is completely bare, and the actor has plenty of room to play, leaving some chairs in place, and using area lighting to establish different locales might have helped speed things along considerably.
Walsh should probably be a bit more discerning in his choice of props as well. At the finish of the play, Johanna is supposed to be opening an envelope with her test results from the hospital - an envelope which will determine her fate. This envelope and its contents, however, were clearly a bank statement from Wells Fargo. So rather than "will she live or die?" the question was "is she overdrawn?"
Ultimately, when the writer/performer decided to go this route and be the sole actor in the piece, he should have rewritten the script with an eye to maintaining the story, but also to find ways to make a solo outing with this tale easier both to perform, and for an audience to follow. While it would be a different script, I don't think the qualities that make it such a tender, understated relationship piece would be lost altogether.
All that said, I still admire the guy for getting it out there, despite the challenges. It's a heartfelt story, and a brave performance. Hopefully he's learned enough from the experience to make it worth the price of admission. He's got two shows left this weekend. He, and this story, are worth an hour of your time.
His show page
His Fringe-For-All preview
Fringe 2009 - 5:30 Tuesday - show #27