REVIEW: Regional Premiere of ‘john & jen” @ the Theater Barn [Berkshire on Stage]
Theater review by Gail M. Burns
john & jen is the area premiere of a melancholy little musical about a woman who spends her whole life, well, the first 45 years at least, trying desperately to take care of the men in her life, only to have them either fail her or reject her smothering efforts. Over the course of the show we learn next to nothing about her – her desires and dreams and talents – but we learn all about them. You will not be surprised when I tell you this show was written by two men, composer Andrew Lippa and lyricist Tom Greenwald.
The woman’s name is Jen and the men with whom she struggles are her unseen, unnamed and physically abusive father; her six-years-younger brother, John, who is killed in Vietnam at the age of 19; her son, also John; and Jason, the father of her child, who is never seen on stage or in the child’s life. The show takes place over the course of 38 years – 1952-1990 – and is set primarily in the United States, although the first scene of the second act occurs in Canada, where Jen and Jason have moved so that he can avoid the draft. In this solid production at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, Caitlin Mesiano plays Jen and Michael Luongo plays her brother John in Act I and her son John in Act II.
The show, which is sung through, rests squarely on Mesiano’s shoulders. Where Luongo is only required to play both Johns from birth to age 18/19, Mesiano has to take Jen from six to 44. I am guessing Mesiano is not yet 30, and both age extremes are a stretch for her. Her voice is naturally fairly high and nasal, and her exaggeration of these traits when she was playing Jen as a child was grating. But since, as I mentioned earlier, Jen is not a well-written or fully fleshed-out character, there are grating and pathetic moments built right in, and Mesiano does a heroic job of bringing emotional depth and sympathetic interest to this tragic woman.