Julius By Design
nytheatre.com review by E. Michael Lockley
July 10, 2011
Julius By Design is a graceful and at times humorous examination of grief and forgiveness. Jo and Laurel are the parents of an African American teenager, Julius, who was killed by another teenage boy, Ethan, during a robbery. The play begins seven years after their son’s murder with the family receiving a letter from Ethan. Laurel, a man with a crossword puzzle obsession and at times a hot temper, immediately throws the letter away without opening it. His wife, Jo, lets her curiosity get the best of her, and when Laurel isn’t around, she reads the letter. Ethan’s letter is remorseful and lets Jo know that his parole hearing is coming up and that she is welcome to show up to stop his parole. This leads the ever-compassionate Jo to find another letter from Ethan that she’d been hiding for seven years. This letter is unrelentingly apologetic and in it Ethan’s use of the word “mercurial” to describe himself sparks Jo’s desire to help him, despite the situation’s irony and her husband’s disapproval.
Part of Jo’s interest is fueled by her past occupation as an English teacher. Throughout the play we see how her fascination with language informs her relationship with everyone around her—from her husband with his crossword puzzles, to her ramblings with guests and even her letters to famous pen pals. After a few letters of secret correspondence with Ethan, Jo encourages Ethan to write a memoir with Jo as his editor to “immortalize himself.” She lets him know that it could help his case for parole. Without telling you too much of the rest of the story, secrets are discovered, intentions are questioned, and an audience is left to consider what it takes to heal—and who deserves forgiveness.
The playwright, Kara Lee Corthron, showcases the complexity of grief by incorporating various tones throughout the piece. The play shifts between a standard family drama, a sitcom (with a physical comedy moment that’s nearly the equivalent of a pie to the face), and a surreal exploration of memory and perceived reality. While most of these shifts in tone work, there are few times that they can seem a bit jerky. And unfortunately some of the staging doesn’t exactly help make those moments any easier to ignore. And though both lighting and costumes really help to characterize the world of the play, elements of the sound design are a bit bothersome. The transition music between scenes deflates the momentum that the preceding scene had built up. It almost felt like the audience was given a “break” to enjoy some nice piano music.
Despite some of the technical aspects of the show, the talented cast truly bring Corthron’s story to life. All of the actors shine in this production, though none more than Suzanne Douglas who gives a skillful performance as Jo. Jo’s neurosis—her obsession over the abuse of commas, her consistent reading of her favorite books, her insistence on proper grammar—do not outweigh her determined compassion. Douglas brings to life all aspects of Jo’s determination (well-intended and manipulative) with such natural ease. Her standout performance showcases that she’s a talent who needs to be seen more often on the New York stage. Johnny Ramey, who plays both Julius and Ethan, is fun to watch as he skillfully balances both characters. He gives Julius a youthful, innocence with very little dialogue and still aptly handles the weary, but hopeful tone of the incarcerated Ethan. And Mike Hodge is convincing as Jo’s husband, who can seem harmless at moments but clearly has tons of emotions boiling underneath.
Three supporting characters played by Crystal Finn, Curran Connor, and Christianna Nelson are dealing with grief in their own ways, and provide Jo with more people to nurture via invitations to holiday meals. Most often these characters provide laughs but the actors execute performances that hint that their quirkiness or bitter sarcasm is a result of an emptiness that is yearning to be filled.
Overall, Julius By Design provides a moving message while showcasing Corthron as a playwright not defined by standards of genre. I’m very happy that Fulcrum, which is dedicated to giving playwrights of color production opportunities, chose to showcase this story. I don’t know that we often see a story that deals with loss, the incarceration system and forgiveness from this perspective. For this reason and because of the incredible performances, I’d suggest checking this production out.