A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Theater, Outdoor theaters
4 out of 5 stars
Photograph: Johnny Knight Vance Smith and Kendra Thulin in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at Stage Left Theatre

The title character of Peter Nichols's 1967 play is ten-year-old Josephine, who parents Bri (Vance Smith) and Sheila (Kendra Thulin) have nicknamed—affectionately, we think—"Joe Egg" in recognition of her lack of independent locomotion. Joe's severe cerebral palsy has left her immobile, save for the kineticism of her regular seizures; she's also unable to communicate meaningfully with her parents or anyone else. Though no one can be certain what's going on inside Josephine's head, she's been labeled, as one particularly insensitive doctor with a heavy Austrian accent puts it, "a wegetable."

English playwright Nichols's piece is a significant—and remarkable for its time—consideration of issues surrounding disability, quality of life and questions of institutionalization, which Sheila particularly resists. Nichols himself raised a child with extreme cognitive disabilities, and one can sense the personal passion he layers into the views expressed about Josephine not just by her parents but also, in the play's second act, by the couple's uncomfortable friends Freddie (Brian Plocharczyk) and Pam (Annie Prichard, awfully funny as the kind of person who's disturbed by anything that's physically unattractive) and Bri's self-righteous mother (Marssie Mencotti).

The casualness with which everyone refers to Joe (Piper Bailey) as a "spastic"—a term today regarded in Britain as just as offensive a slur as "retard" has become in the U.S.—and suggests shipping her off to a "residential hospital" and trying again for "a real baby" is breathtakingly disturbing.

Yet Joe Egg is just as much a moving portrait of marriage as a marathon performance, in which the circumstance of Josephine's condition might as well stand in for any number of variables. Bri and Sheila regularly step out of the action to address us directly, either separately or together; it's in these sequences that we learn about the encounter with Dr. "Wegetable," as reenacted by Brian, along with much of the rest of their back story: their meeting, their marriage, learning about Joe's diagnosis and searching for somewhere to assign blame for it.

These stories, it becomes clear, are routines the couple has developed to maintain their sanity and their relationship, like the various personalities and conversations they project onto their daughter. Brian tells himself the song-and-dance is necessary because of their special circumstance—if not for Josephine's condition, he tells us, he and Sheila might have had a perfectly nice marriage, though both Nichols and Smith's charming, nuanced performance suggest Bri knows he's kidding himself.

Sheila, on the other hand, "embraces all life" (as Brian puts it) and keeps faith, or the appearance of it, her main priority. The always empathetic Thulin echoes that sentiment in the powerful address that closes the first act, in which Sheila wishes Bri would take her optimism more seriously: "I think where there's life, there's hope, don't you?"

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