It’s a mystery why Shelagh Delaney's funny, touching and extraordinarily prescient 1958 play has sat on the shelf for so long: there hasn’t been a significant New York revival for 35 years. Director Austin Pendleton, who remembers being “unmoored” by the 1960 Broadway premiere, has done audiences a favor in dusting off the stage play, which compares favorably with the familiar 1961 film version. Steeped in period details (including an onstage jazz trio, suitably unflappable), this story of an oddball adolescent surviving the neglect of her self-centered “semi-whore” of a mother (Delaney’s descriptor) feels surprisingly contemporary. After a weirdly peppy misjudged beginning—raising the suspicion that Pendleton might intend to jack up the RPM to offset the running time—the central duo really hit their stride. Although Rachel Botchan, as hard-partying Helen, comes across as just a bit too chipper (she could use a dash more slattern), Rebekah Brockman is a revelation in the role of quirky, outspoken Jo.
Brockman’s splay-legged stance in the first act is the essence of schoolgirl truculence. Her eyes are like security cameras: Jo (Delaney, actually: a phenom at age 19) takes absolutely everything in. Jo fixates in particular on the beauty of a young black sailor (Ade Otukoya) who surfaces long enough to participate in her first dip into love, a realm she has already learned, through her mother, to associate with strife.
After intermission we find Jo knocked up: either carelessly or callously abandoned. Brockman commits none of the clichés of feigned pregnancy. Forgoing the standard waddle, she pitches slightly forward, as if in anticipation. Her Jo, still part child, is truly expectant—and simultaneously terrified. And that first labor pang? Wrung from her, it’s devastating.
By the time Jo’s dalliance has come to fruition, Helen has flown their squalid coop—a sooty, Manchester flat ably summoned by Harry Feiner—in favor of a bon vivant drunkard a decade her junior (company regular Bradford Cover, convincingly louche). As a substitute, Jo has taken up with Geoffrey (John Evans Reese, nicely understated), a cosseting young man whom she quickly pegs, nonjudgmentally, as homosexual. His awkward attempts to initiate a physical relationship go nowhere, but their bonds run deep: Jo teasingly exults in having a “big sister.” To see such a relationship honestly and unsentimentally depicted a full generation before the “gay best friend” meme is almost unbearably touching, especially in light of the hundreds of thousands of similarly kind-hearted companions who would subsequently succumb to AIDS.
Pearl Theatre Company (Off Broadway). By Shelagh Delaney. Directed by Austin Pendleton. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Oct 30. Click here for full venue and ticket information.