An Up-the-Hill Battle

In a decidedly patriarchal world, can a woman build an independent female identity and fall in love? This is the question posed in Jane Martin's play Jack and Jill, this season's opener at Stages Repertory Theatre. The question is an old one, and generally, literature has allowed women one or the other, but rarely both. In Henrik Ibsen's 19th-century A Doll's House, Nora Helmer comes to realize that she has lived her life as a sort of doll/child subject to her husband's whims. She leaves him, and her children, in search of the "absolute freedom" she feels she needs to become a fully realized adult. We've seen similar behavior from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Kate Chopin's Mrs. Pontellier and even Erica Jong's shameless Isadora, who leaves her perfectly nice though dull husband to search the world for a "zipless fuck": All trade the safety and dependence of marriage for an independent self.

Jill, the female half of Martin's two-character play, is well aware of her literary foremothers. She's a literate sort -- in fact, Jack first sees her in a library, sitting in a stiff-backed chair, engrossed in Sylvia Plath poetry. Jill has decided not to go blindly tumbling after a man, not to fall in love, become dependent and lose herself. But (as Anna Karenina could have told her) one cannot simply decide not to fall in love. When Jill is swept off her feet, as she puts it, she questions and ponders and gnashes her teeth over gender issues as hard as any of those female prototypes that came before her.

Of course, Jill isn't living in Anna Karenina's world, but in the condom-carrying '90s. Indeed Jill, unlike Fear of Flying's Isadora, won't have sex without them.

Jill lives life very much on her own terms. She decides not to bear children; she goes to medical school and becomes a high-powered hospital administrator, all with relative ease and without repercussion. In fact, her only real barrier to creating an independent identity capable of being in love seems to be herself. Her boyfriend/husband/lover/enemy Jack is a very nice guy -- one who puts her through medical school and listens to her endless whining and theorizing about the inequities between the sexes. He's so nice that when he finally grows some cojones and dismisses her with a "Fuck you," audience members are behind him all the way; last Friday night, they cheered.

But Jill can't accept Jack with all his nice-guy goodness. She is too mired in screwed-up '70s feminist ideas of what it means to be a woman. She desperately longs for power, thinking it will bring her independence; but once she gets it, she wonders where her "universe of feelings [and] intuitions" has gone. She posits the idea that a woman must sell her feelings to get the power that men have held so long. This notion that women have feelings and intuition, while men have mercantile power, is of the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus school -- a simple-minded view of the world you wouldn't expect a thinking woman to hold.

But Jill considers herself a thinking woman. In one of the play's several monologues, she muses upon questions concerning the man/woman conflict. She asks, "What is this battlefield upon which we are engaged? Who has done what to whom?" She ponders what should be taught to a female child, "cotillion, SAT skills ... pagan rituals, carpentry?" The problem with all Jill's ruminations is that they are neither deeply intellectual nor socially astute. It sometimes appears that she stepped off the planet sometime during the '70s, missing two decades of feminist thinking along with hundreds of episodes of Roseanne, Murphy Brown and Designing Women -- all of which have addressed Jill's questions over and over and over.

With Jill's gender politics so dated and self-indulgent, it's difficult to take her man/woman problems seriously. The real energy and conflict in the play come from the implied chemistry -- the love -- between Jack and Jill. What else would keep Jack coming back for more of her relentless whining?

Deborah Hope's Jill is believable, and Hope has an obviously fine sense of comic timing, while Brian Byrnes is especially appealing as the sad sack, sometimes impotent Jack. Rob Bundy's direction, like the acting, is competent. The actors move about the stage with grace, and the scene changes, which take place with the lights up and while the actors are speaking, are such models of clean theatrical efficiency that they are actually fun to watch. The show is briskly paced and finely lit; and the set, though not at all beautiful, functions well.

But sadly, both the direction and the acting, though competent, are uninspired. There's no spark between the two characters, no heart-pounding joy, no hold-your-breath desire, no body-groping longing, no tearful rage -- in short, none of the stuff that makes a love story exciting. And Jack and Jill is, at its heart, a love story. It may be the love of the neurotic, privileged and self-indulgent, but it's love.

With no sexual fire between the actors, the play slowly unfurls into a diatribe about male/female relationships in the wake of feminism. Jack and Jill, in this production, don't appear to love each other much at all -- not nearly enough to sustain the haranguing and endless out-loud thinking they engage in. When they fight, they occasionally raise their voices. When they kiss, they are careful not to get too gooey. Even when breaking plates in a rage, Hope's Jill tosses dishes in a limp-wristed, bored-to-tears way that is confounding and frustrating to watch. It's all very civilized, yes. But throwing plates is a rageful act, a passionate act, the act of a woman who can decide on the spur of the moment to run off to Prague (which Jill does). None of that skin-tingling, heartbreaking love makes it to the stage.

And palpable love is essential to this story about a couple trying to communicate in a world awash with gender politics jargon. Indeed, the struggle to find a language with which to talk about love in light of '90s feminism is at the heart of Martin's play. Jack and Jill often speak in incomplete and fractured sentences, talking over each other and against each other in a pastiche of failed communication. The play examines the possibility that feminist jargon has become more than meaningless, that it's become hurtful to women and the men they love. On stage, if Jack and Jill seem to love one another, their pain might make their love woe worthy of its literary parentage. After all, Nora Helmer, Anna Karenina and even naughty Isadora are all, like Jill, privileged women, who have often been accused of spoiled and childish behavior. But there's a crucial difference: When those ladies throw a plate, everyone knows to duck.

Jack and Jill plays through October 12 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.