Jar the Floor: With Family Like This, Would You Want to Go Home?

Shannon Lamb, Maggie Miller, Johnnie Mae, Brianna Sloane and Toni Ann DeNoble at the end of Jar the Door at New Century Theatre.
Shannon Lamb, Maggie Miller, Johnnie Mae, Brianna Sloane and Toni Ann DeNoble at the end of Jar the Door at New Century Theatre.

Jar the Floor might be a bit like your memory of going back home for a family gathering.  A little booze, some awkward party gifts, and a whole lot of family disagreements and dirty laundry set to air.  Bring your new gal-pal with you, you might need some help.

Hopefully, your family reunion memories are a bit happier than what happens when these five characters, four African-American and one white woman, gather to celebrate their matriarch’s 90th birthday in a suburban Chicago home.

Like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, what we see are a bickering bunch, young and old, who seem set on lighting fires under each other and picking scabs that go back generations.  It’s a tough slog, funny in parts, but a comedy it’s not.  The characters are complicated, and the script was a tough exercise in being angry nearly all of the time.

The exception is the one outsider, Raisa, girlfriend and cheerer-up-in-chief while mom, grandmom and great grand mother do battle and accuse, lament, rinse, resent and repeat. There is plenty of ammo to keep everyone mad, from resentment over taking care of dottering MaDear, the birthday girl, to the struggle of every black woman who has had to fight to comb her hair every morning. And don’t even get Maydee (Shannon Lamb) going on the topic of whether her daughter Vinnie should have finished college.

The play, written in 1989 by Cheryl West, was New Century Theatre’s last in their four-show summer fun, and the audience stood up and gave it a standing ovation when it was done. But the third and fourth acts with the arguing, truth telling and simmering resentment made me want it to be over sooner.  MaDear, played by Johnnie Mae, begins the first act as if she’s lost her marbles. She pines for her life on a farm and for a man who her daughter says never existed.  She has some poignant moments recalling how hard it was as a young woman to be called ugly.

Vinnie (Toni Ann DeNoble) is a graceful dancer and versatile actress who shines, even while pretty much having to defend herself the whole play through.  Maggie Miller’s portrayal of Lola got a few laughs, but the script’s consistently pugilistic tone hampers the ability for the audience to have much empathy. This was true of all of these characters, with the exception of Riasa, the lone ray of sunshine.

When her daughter Lola begins throwing around talk about ‘disgusting oral sex’  we realize that MaDear is anything but out of it.   The frustrating part of the play is how close these actors come to the edge of reality–each generation is giving the other guilt trips and the level of narcissism is frighteningly familiar to so many people’s experiences with their own parents.  No compassion, little empathy, and a lot of very harsh words are tossed around this suburban living room.

Vinnie, the grand daughter who has come to see Great Granny’s 90th birthday, can’t seem to do anything right in her prim and proper very well educated mother Maydee’s opinion.  She can barely get a sentence out without the requisite grammar correction….and it takes a plot reveal to tell us just why Maydee was so against Vinnie trying a career as a singer, holding her college fund hostage when it’s clear that more classes are not in Vinnie’s vision of her future.

This is a rich and heavy play, with themes that we rarely see on stage.  Raisa’s (Brianna Stone) costume, one large breast and prominent nipple that MaDear can’t stop looking at raises eyebrows.  Raisa bravely confronts her breast cancer and it is revealed that there’s worse news–but she skillfully makes a point about not putting on the prosthetic breast because that’s not who she is.  Brianna’s character tries valiantly to be the sunshine in a room full of rain, but soon we see multiple conversations happening at the same moment, very little listening and empathy, and any chance of sun is pretty dimmed.

Jar the Door, New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center for the Arts, Smith College. Tickets New Century Theatre.org, runs through Sat August 6.