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Jasper

Theatre Review by James Wilson - September 14, 2022


Dominic Fumusa, Jessica Pimentel, and Abigail Hawk
Photo by Russ Rowland
As the old adage would have it, "Children should be seen and not heard." In Grant MacDermott's Jasper, which is currently running in a Yonder Window Theatre Company world premiere production at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the children, one very sick eight-year-old and the other a rambunctious and healthy four-year-old, are not seen and only infrequently heard, but they take on a large, looming presence. The three adults in the play are most definitely seen and heard, but their lives center almost entirely around the inconspicuous little boys.

Jasper, the eight-year-old, was born with what one assumes to be (but is never mentioned) severe cystic fibrosis. He has been attached to breathing apparatuses his entire short life, and he has been in and out of hospitals with constant regularity. His parents, Drew (Dominic Fumusa) and Andrea (Jessica Pimentel), have endured unceasing forewarnings that their son is not going to survive the next medical crisis, but they exist in eternal hope that he will be admitted into an experimental drug program and beat the odds. Unsurprisingly, the stress and never-ending vigilance have taken a toll on them individually and as a couple.

Drew and Andrea continually bicker, and they are inattentive to domestic responsibilities such as buying groceries and folding the laundry that is scattered around their Queens apartment (which is suitably claustrophobic in the realization by Michael Gianfrancesco, who also designed the costumes). The few moments of pleasure they enjoy together are ones in which they reflect on their pre-Jasper days of dancing, socializing, and leisurely lovemaking.

On the train to his construction job, Drew meets Shayla (Abigail Hawk), who is a single mother to four-year-old Tyler and also a high-powered executive. When Shayla spills her coffee on her silk shirt (in a not-quite-believable subway bit), Drew loans her his sweatshirt, and thus begins a fast and intense friendship. Their regular meetings in the park provide the chance for each to experience what it would mean to be in happier parenting situations. He gets to toss a ball and play with a surrogate son, and she takes enjoyment and gratification in watching her child in a nurturing relationship with a kind and decent man (unlike her ex-husband). Naturally, it isn't long before the new-found familial bliss is interrupted as Andrea becomes suspicious of her husband's extracurricular paternalizing.

MacDermott addresses important issues about parenting, and there are some affecting moments among all of the conflicted characters. Ultimately, however, the play is unsatisfying as it hints at being more provocative and incendiary than it actually is. The production begins, for instance, with unsettling sounds and flashing lights, and the script contains some insidious allusions to what life might be like without Jasper. (Robin A. Paterson designed the excellent lighting and John Gromada contributed the original music and sound design.) There are even a few dropped insinuations about Drew's interest in Shayla's son. Under Katie McHugh's uneven direction, though, the dark side is unfortunately left mostly uncharted.

The play is reminiscent of Amy Herzog's deeply moving Mary Jane, which focuses on a single mother who is struggling financially and personally while raising a very sick child. While that play presents a rich and complicated character study, Jasper seems to skate along on the surface generalities of a Lifetime movie. We get only glimpses of the characters as flesh-and-blood people rather than as individuals defined solely by their relationships with the children.

This is a pity because the actors all do fine work with the material they are given. Fumusa is immensely likable and sympathetic as a man torn between two families. Pimentel conveys notable strength even as she is gradually crushed by bureaucratic machinations and ongoing and unsuccessful medical interventions. As the harried single mother, Hawk finds the right amount of humor while negotiating motherhood, institutional child-care difficulties, and a demanding career.

Both to his credit and to the possible detriment of the work, MacDermott avoids the maudlin and tearjerking elements of a Lifetime movie. That said, as an inveterate weeper, I would have appreciated some emotional connection even if it were emotionally manipulated and melodramatically manufactured. Except for the final image, which elicited a few gasps from the audience and which was telegraphed long before, I was left generally cold by Jasper.

Jasper
Through October 6, 2022
Yonder Window Theatre Company
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: OvationTix.com


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