KPBS AIRDATE: March 16, 1994 >
You wouldn’t expect to get many laughs at a play about a woman dying of cancer. But “Joined at the Head” is actually quite funny. You might even say, a little too funny. The playwright, Catherine Butterfield, who’s on intimate terms with her subject, seems so hellbent on not over-sentimentalizing it or her characters that she defuses every intense moment with a comic relief of one sort or another. And while that’s not a bad strategy with such heavy material, it serves to distance the audience a bit emotionally. We like these characters, but we don’t ache for them.
But that’s all right, because we’re interested in them. And that’s worth a lot. This is more a story about loneliness and friendship than it is about battling cancer. The point is that everyone is the main character in his or her own play, but we’re only backdrop to everyone else’s drama. This theme is highlighted in the writing, the direction and the tech work in this Pasadena Playhouse production, and it all succeeds impressively.
The title refers to two seemingly opposite women, the former girlfriend of a Boston guy, and his current wife, who meet again 20 years after their high school graduation. The ex-girlfriend is a successful novelist, unmarried. The wife is suffering from terminal cancer. The man is fulcrum and foil for the powerful connection that develops between the two women. Playwright/actress Butterfield really knows these characters; in fact, she plays one of them. And her prowess is evident in both domains.
Intended as a kind of tribute to the dying woman, “Joined at the Head” also alooks into the life of Butterfield’s alter-ego, Maggy. (Butterfield actually plays the wife, also named Maggie, but with an -ie ending. The real-life women were named Cathy with a C and Kathy with a K). As Maggy the writer, actress Robin Pearson Rose serves as narrator, interpreting the feelings and actions of the other characters until the other Maggie gets fed up with her romanticizing and steps downstage to tell her own story. As Jim, the middle-man, Jeff Allin breifly gets to tell his side, too. Breaking down the fourth wall between actors and audience is a structural effect as old as the theater itself, and it pretty much still works, though it’s pushing it at one point to ask the audience which one of the women should proceed with the story.
Pamela Berlin directed the play’s award-winning world premiere in New York in 1992, and she directs the Pasadena/Poway production, too, with a finely-tuned sense of the rhythm and complexity of the piece. The staging, like the tech work, is fairly simple but very effective and engaging. The supporting cast of six, who play about 35 other roles, depict a series of stereotypes, but they do them awfully well.
The spotlight, though, is on the three central characters. Rose is warm, witty and charming as ex-girlfriend Maggie, and Allin, though he doesn’t get to do too much, keeps his role — and the two women — in balance, and his few moments of raw, edgy emotion are honest and believable. Butterfield is downright refreshing as the upbeat, sarcastic, sometimes dark-humored wife, and that’s probably the best tribute she could pay to a dear friend who served as muse for this cogent and absorbing play.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.