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John & Jen
Book by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald
Lyrics by Tom Greenwald, Music by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
July 15, 2016

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Brother and Sister. Mother and Son. These are important relationships to which many theatre goers will be able to relate, dealt with in Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s two-person musical John & Jen, which is currently being presented by Insight Theatre Company. The production is well-cast, for the most part, and provides an intriguing look at one woman and two important relationships in her life.

The story features two performers playing the characters at various ages and stages of their lives. Jen Tracy (Jenni Ryan) is six years old when her brother John (Spencer Davis Milford) is born, and we get to see the dynamics of their relationship as both grow up and learn to deal with the world around them and with a domineering, sometimes violent father. Jen’s wish to protect her brother conflicts with her desire to get away from her hostile home environment, and as she goes to college in the 1960’s and gets caught up in anti-war activism, John stays home under the influence of his father and eventually finds his own views about the war and life conflicting with Jen’s. This relationship has a profound impact on Jen, who later names her own son (also Milford) after her brother. We get to watch as Jen becomes a loving but sometimes overprotective mother, and as young John grows and learns to assert his own independence. The mother-son relationship is alternately strong and strained, as Jen learns to deal with her own personal issues regarding her brother and how she relates to her son.

There isn’t a lot more detail I can go into without spoiling too much, but essentially this is a character study. The primary focus is on Jen, with relationships with her brother and son providing insight into her own issues of attachment, guilt, and conflict about how to be a good mother to her son. The two performers give strong performances, with both convincingly portraying the characters at different ages, and with Milford especially doing an excellent job distinguishing between the two characters he plays, both named John. Milford also has a strong singing voice, performing the show’s songs well and displaying a great deal of energy on songs like “Dear God”, “Little League”, and “Bye Room”. Ryan, while giving a convincing acting performance, sometimes struggles with the singing, particularly as many of the songs seem a little to high for her range. Both performers portray convincing relationships, first as brother and sister, and then as mother and son, and the conclusion of the play is particularly affecting.

The show is performed on a minimalist set designed by Kyra Bishop–consisting of a series of ramps, platforms, a wall, and a swing– that provides an effective backdrop for the action of the show. There’s also excellent use of projections–also designed by Bishop and filmed by David Sanford–and Leah McFall’s excellent costumes to effectively portray the changing times as the story moves from the 1950’s and eventually into the 1980’s.  There’s also excellent lighting from Oliver Littleton and sound by Brett Harness.

John & Jen provides a lot for audience to think about, although the underlying message can be unclear at times. For the most part, though, this is a vivid, interesting character study looking at three people over the course of four decades of American history. Although the history is there as a backdrop, this is primarily a personal story, and as that it’s compelling to watch.

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting John & Jen at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until July 31, 2016.

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