Attired in a conservative turquoise blouse, brown skirt, practical shoes, and large glasses, Bill Smartt performing as his Aunt Jack looks something like a fifth Golden Girl. Indeed, the stories Aunt Jack tells are akin to those Rose or Sophia might tell on the hit geriatric sitcom. Smartt's one-man (or should I say one-woman?) play Aunt Jack , receiving its New York premiere at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, is a sweet portrait of his aunt, a woman with an interesting if slightly kooky personality.
However, while Aunt Jack's life is unusual, Aunt Jack the play could stand a little more dramatic flair. The play is constructed from audio tapes that Smartt's aunt (whose real name is Louise Smartt Emmons) made before she died of cancer in 1982. Born in Tennessee in 1914 and active in American WWII efforts overseas, the play is a compendium of anecdotes and stories, some funny, others touching, that take us through Jack's life in the South. Though aspects of Aunt Jack's life are intriguing – how many Southern women could attest to having been almost torpedoed on a boat? — as constructed by Smartt and directed by Tony Speciale, the play doesn't contain enough of an emotional arc to make for a continually engaging evening of theater. Using the conceit that we are actually witnessing Aunt Jack recording one of her audio tapes for future generations, the play rarely leaves the prim and simple sitting room from which Jack tells her tales, resulting in a work that often feels static.
The play opens with one of Aunt Jack's signature folk songs "Paw Paw Patch" (complete with hand gestures), and it's a great introduction to Aunt Jack's quirky and idiosyncratic character. What follows are tales of "wienie roasts," blackouts in London during WWII, and stories of life out on the road with a theater company. Aunt Jack's folksy down-home ways were so endearing that they directly inspired the character of Minnie Pearl, star of the Grand Ole Opry, who becomes one of Jack's friends.
Smartt is a compelling actor with an acute sense of comic timing and a knack for storytelling. He clearly demonstrates a love and affection for his aunt's life and does his best to compensate for the fact that much of the show is told from an armchair. Though occasionally other characters are invoked by Jake in passing, perhaps if Smartt had incorporated more characters into the play (à la I Am My Own Wife or Golda's Balcony), we would have gotten a more dramatic affair than the one we are presented with.
Perhaps, though, some of the pacing and "arc" issues reside with director Speciale as well. Though he helps bring out the play's humanity and touching simplicity, the play is littered with multiple awkward pauses between most of the stories. Clearly, this serves to give the audience and Smartt short narrative respites, but the result is a play that feels disjointed and, at times, hesitant.
In addition to dropping fascinating tidbits about respectable female sexual behavior along the way, Aunt Jack offers tantalizing asides throughout the play that are never followed up on. For example, at the top of the play, Aunt Jack informs us that she named herself "Jack" at a young age, but she's not going to tell us why because "it goes back into the subconscious and various things." An intriguing assertion, all the more so considering that Aunt Jack is now being resurrected by her real-life nephew in drag!
Perhaps, though, the inability to tease out the gender implications of Aunt Jack's name reflects a larger problem when constructing a play from pre-existing materials, namely Smartt is ostensibly limited by his aunt's real life as recorded by the audio tapes. Though clearly one wants to be faithful to actual events, such a strategy does not always make for dynamic theater. Given the limits of the source materials, Aunt Jack is a pleasant enough evening. Though the parts are greater than the whole, at a short 70 minutes, the play chugs along evoking a time now frequently forgotten.