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‘Joe Egg’: When Cracks Appear, the Truth Runs Right Out

Sheila and Brian, a young married couple in Bristol, England, have evolved an elaborate strategy for dealing with their severely incapacitated daughter Joe, who cannot speak or walk and is confined to a wheelchair. They joke, they clown and do the old soft shoe in a heroic effort to keep despair and exhaustion at bay. But behind the manic humor and antic word play is a marriage divided and a child whose uncertain future has put her parents’ lives in limbo.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which premiered in 1967, was Peter Nichols’ first play, and is still his best known, although he went on to write Privates on Parade and Passion Play, both successes on London’s West End. Joe Egg is nearly 50 years old, but it hasn’t lost any of its ferocity or brilliant, comic knife edge. Nichols wrote the play partially based on his own experience; he and his wife had a daughter who was disabled and died at 11.

Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield is staging an impassioned production of Joe Egg through May 18. Borrowing routines of the English music hall, Nichols has his characters speak directly to the audience, using pantomime and interludes of surreal comic business that come out of the iconoclastic British tradition that produced Beyond the Fringe, the troupe made up of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, and Monty Python.

The great thing about Nichols’ writing is that instead of going for the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of shock value, as do so many contemporary TV shows and films, he actually goes for the genuine electric shock, the jolt of unleashed energy and anger that leaves the audience simultaneously laughing and twisting uneasily in their seats.

Nichols dares you to laugh, and makes you laugh, at moments that, in other dramas, would be played for piety, a smiling-through-the-tears bathos shimmering in a golden light and accompanied by a tinkling piano. But Nichols brings you right up to the edge of what’s considered good taste and frequently plunges right over. The writing is unsparing. It avoids phoney-baloney euphemisms and unapologetically runs roughshod over genteel, you-can’t-say-that sensibilities.

A school teacher, Brian relies on mimicry and clowning around to relieve the strain of being in a marriage where all the attention, by rights, falls on Joe. She is the couple’s only child, and the barometer of the household goes up or down based on her mood and health. Sheila worries over and tends to her as only a parent could, but Brian feels that he’s the also-ran, no more or less important to Sheila than the assortment of small pets she’s collected. So he’s needy and clinging one moment, and adolescent-jokey the next.

Sheila dotes on her daughter, but is less forgiving with her husband, with whom she’s frequently impatient and annoyed. She already has one child who needs more attention than she can give; what does she want with another? You can see why she is so terse, so fed up — she’s been asked to give unstintingly of herself for years — but her short temper can feel mean and uncharitable, as if she were the only martyr in the house. So she hurries off to amateur theatricals, which give her an outlet from her responsibilities, and leaves Brian with Joe.

Into this powder keg of a household come posh Pam and Freddie, who have been working with Sheila in the theater group. They’re offended by what they find. Pam is the kind of woman who falls back on acronyms to separate herself from the great unwashed masses. So she throws out PLU, for People Like Us; and NPA, for Not Physically Attractive. She can barely stand to look at Joe, or listen to the catalog of ills that plague her.

Freddie is at the other end of the scale, one of those interfering souls who finds Brian’s continual joking deeply tasteless and a sign of moral bankruptcy. He says he only has Sheila and Brian’s best interests at heart, but his ideas for how to improve their lives lay bare his appalling lack of imagination. And just when this seems like more than the couple can stand, Brian’s mother Grace arrives, an Iron Lady well before Margaret Thatcher earned the sobriquet.

How this all plays out is by turns harrowing and savagely funny, as performed by an exceptionally able cast. As Brian and Sheila, Andy Lindberg and Allison McLemore do an expert dance of mutual affection, attraction and loathing. They can’t bear to be together, but they don’t really know how to be apart, either.

Lindberg, a new actor to the Shaker Bridge stock company, finds the vulnerability in Brian’s buffoonery. He also catches the desperation of three lives caught in a vise from which there is no easy exit.

Allison McLemore is particularly affecting as Sheila, whose brisk manner and cutting wit conceal the anguish of a mother who cannot do more for her child, and who blames herself for Joe’s disabilities. McLemore has developed for the role a voice that she keeps at a neutral pitch, as if to exert the utmost control over the deepest emotions, and it serves as an ironic counterpoint to a situation that threatens to spiral out of control.

As Pam and Freddie, Kay Morton and Mike Backman are the epitome of clueless twits, making you laugh and cringe in the same moment. One of the virtues of Nichols’ writing, though, is that every character can pose important questions, or reveal the things that people think but will not say. So Grace and Freddie, in their insensitive ways, occasionally stumble onto unpalatable truths, as does Brian’s mother, played with a bustling self-righteousness by Kim Meredith.

Keira Hines is Joe, and although the play calls for her to do little but lie limp, or sometimes make sounds, the fact that the audience can see her fragility and humanity makes the family’s dilemma even more crushing. What is more important: the child’s well-being or her parents’? You can’t really answer that with any degree of satisfaction or complacency, and director Bill Coons draws out the play’s tenderness and black comedy with an expert hand.

F or tickets and information, go to www.shakerbridgetheatre.org/html/about.shtml or call 603-448-3750.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith @vnews.com.