Broadway arrives in Wichita via ‘The Realistic Joneses’

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Broadway arrives in Wichita via ‘The Realistic Joneses’

Jami Thomas, Nick Pope, Christy Campbell, and Leslie Coates star in

Jami Thomas, Nick Pope, Christy Campbell, and Leslie Coates star in "The Realistic Joneses."

Courtesy of Susan Guntly

Jami Thomas, Nick Pope, Christy Campbell, and Leslie Coates star in "The Realistic Joneses."

Courtesy of Susan Guntly

Courtesy of Susan Guntly

Jami Thomas, Nick Pope, Christy Campbell, and Leslie Coates star in "The Realistic Joneses."

On a recent Thursday evening, I found myself sitting in an intimate audience at The Fisch Haus with a playbill in my hand. The set was simple: an outdoor picnic table on stage right, a screen door in the center, and an old fridge and a little kitchen table on stage left. The play began with a spotlight on a couple sitting at their outdoor table, eating dinner.

“The Realistic Joneses​,” written by American playwright, Will Eno, was originally performed on Broadway in 2014. While the play has origins in New York, the Fisch Bowl Theatre’s production is purely local. ​“The Realistic Joneses” ​is Wichitan Stacy Chestnut’s directorial debut and features four local actors: Leslie Coates (as John Jones), Christy Campbell (Pony Jones), Nick Pope (Bob Jones) and Jami Thomas (Jennifer Jones).

Bob and Jennifer Jones appear to be an ordinary pair, but the sharp, honest dialogue hints towards an eerie familiarity and touching humanness. Early on, we learn that Bob has an unusual and debilitating disease for which there is little hope of a cure. Thomas and Pope are perfect in their roles of caretaker and apathetic victim. There are no bells and whistles here — no glitz or props to divert your attention from the painstakingly familiar way we try to connect with each other.

The other couple, Pony and John Jones, are at first seemingly opposites of Bob and Jennifer. But as the play progresses, we discover that John, too, is afflicted with the strange disease. Note: Eno has stated that he made up the ailment, but based on the symptoms in the play, it is very similar to ALS (a progressive neurodegenerative disease). The couples find themselves in surprising, intimate moments with one another.

There is a particularly touching scene of Jennifer running into John at the grocery store. John reaches out to touch her shoulder, and Jennifer says, “What are you doing?” to which John answers, “Reaching out, I guess.” The extreme honesty of this play is such to make you feel as if it is another dimension of life itself, and not a play at all. What you see surely with your eyes is often relayed to you verbally. The effect is jarring.

The scenes play out in quick, delicious, almost painful bites that are cut with blackouts. The 90-minute production has no intermission, and maybe that’s just as well. The play has us eavesdropping on its central couples’ lives, and to step away for a minute would be to miss the world.

I had questions about how this play found its home in Kansas. I also wondered about the deeper existential meaning behind this script, and the subtext that pointed at fear of intimacy and mortality. Director Stacy Chestnut was kind enough to catch up with me to discuss these questions and more.

BY: What drew you to this play initially?  How did you discover it?

SC: There is a group of people that I know and we are constantly thinking of what play to do yet. Minimal props, maximum meaning. I’m focused on producing work that is not being done in Wichita and doing things that are new and current. I want to tell a story that creates an opportunity for the audience to see things in a new way. I like plays with a smaller cast that creates a possibility for the actors to relate in a different way.

When you get a piece that is a classic or maybe has huge production value– those things are all great and they are spectacles but obviously my ability, and what we are trying to do at the Fisch Haus, is not set up for that. I few characters, few production needs, but meaningful. 

BY: How would you characterize the underlying themes in this play? To me it seemed there was a very modern feel of isolation and loneliness. 

SC: I had to read it a number of times. I didn’t like it at first. Maybe I didn’t understand it; but I didn’t like it in a good way. I wasn’t ready to deal with this s***. It sat for a month or two. Then I thought, there’s something here and I want to give it a go. I had auditions and it just happened that I was able to cast four people who were exactly what I had in mind. Casting is 98% luck. I could already see the potential for these four people to embrace these characters. (In this play) what is being said is less important than what is ​not​ being said.  I wanted people who were older and who had experiences with life. I think this is definitely naturalism. 

BY: Would you mind defining naturalism?

SC: Naturalism deals with people as subjects as an experiment. I think determinism is here as well.  In your best effort to be a person with free will, there’s still this thing that you can’t escape and that is mortality. At the end of the day we may just be just one piece of a bigger puzzle that has more to do with being a part of a group, rather than an individual. 

Will (Eno) is writing to a middle-aged audience. I kept thinking of Dylan Thomas’ “Poem on His Birthday,” which he wrote on his 35th: “the closer I move to death, the louder the sun blooms.” Mortality is on the horizon, and it’s a real thing now. 

BY: When my partner and I went, I told him, ‘You’re Bob. Bob reminded me so much of you.”

SC: I hear that a lot from couples. In every person there’s a Pony. In every person there is a Bob. 

BY: Why do you direct?

SC: Community is why I want to direct theater. I think we have to take risks and produce work that is thinking about the people in our community and being healthy and happy and thinking about issues that are hard to deal with in real time. Using this as a catalyst for conversation and for catharsis, and for people to be able to see themselves in the piece. 

The kind of work that the Fisch Haus and I am interested in doing are shows and stories that are sort of on the cutting edge; like what is happening right now. I’m craving a different experience. Also, it’s $100 to see a large production. That’s not in everyone’s budget.

BY: What’s in the future for you?

SC: There’s weirder stuff I want to do but I don’t want to do it for that sake only. I just want to tell stories and I want it to encourage healthier relationships and (hope) that when we see a piece of theater we see ourselves in it. And to be more empathetic. Authenticity through reality. Let’s tell stories of people who are having experiences different from ours, but let’s see ourselves in them.

The Realistic Joneses”​ plays at the Fisch Haus on Thursday and Friday, March 21 and 22 at 7:30, as well as a final showing on Saturday, March 23 at 2 p.m. A $10 donation is suggested.