Two hours with `Jake' is time that's well spent

Theater: The substantive Neil Simon comedy "Jake's Women" was one of two performances simultaneously held at the two Chesapeake Center stages.

March 08, 2001|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Saturday marked the first time that performances were simultaneously held at both theaters at the new Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts.

"Tim O'Brien and the Crossing" was staged in the main, larger theater, and "Jake's Women" was offered in the Studio Theatre. Although you'd think it would be annoying, we were happy to find the parking lot filled with the large turnout for live theater.

The mood, as we walked to the theater, was reminiscent of the magical "field of dreams" evening three years ago when nearly 1,000 people filled the old auditorium to share the dream of building an arts center in Brooklyn Park. Near the entrance to the Studio Theatre on Saturday, the center's executive director, Wayne Shipley, was happily finding parking places for arriving cars.

In the end, 660 people turned out at the main theater, and at least 80 - near capacity for the Studio Theatre - for "Jake's Women." So the word is spreading.

The center's resident Actors Company Theatre paid its audience a high compliment by choosing Neil Simon's more substantive "Jake's Women" rather than the usual Simon comedy for a two-weekend run.

"As Simon's most self-reflective work, `Jake's Women' is especially honest," said director John Strawbridge.

Actor Gary Wheeler added: "The Studio Theatre is a wonderful space that allows us to practically play out these relationships in the laps of our audience."

Written in 1987, "Jake's Women" showcases Jake, a witty self-absorbed novelist who is definitely worth spending a couple hours with. As played by Gary Wheeler, Jake grows more fascinating as we get to know him through his relationships with a number of women - including his deceased wife, Julie, who is summoned by Jake while in her 20s; his present wife, Maggie; his sister, Karen; his psychiatrist, Edith; his adolescent daughter Molly, who also appears as a 21-year-old; and current girlfriend, Sheila.

Wheeler becomes a different Jake with each woman - some are real, and others who spring from his imagination. Jake is most engaged, open and vulnerable with his first wife, Julie, who died in a car accident at 36. Jake conjures up a 20-something Julie, who is so fresh, tender, lively and loving that she touches our hearts most.

Julie is brought to life by Krystee Kott in a sensitive portrayal that seems uncanny for a former gunnery officer who once served on a destroyer.

Having been granted a birthday wish to see her daughter, Kott's Julie gives a profoundly moving performance as she meets her 21-year-old daughter, Molly, played by Rachel Oakes, who conveys Molly's ambivalence in recoiling and reaching out to the mother she barely remembers.

Jake's present wife, Maggie, is well-played by Theresa Flynn. Flynn is hilarious when summoned by Jake to become an onlooker, as Jake spars with his girlfriend, Sheila, and Flynn's character delights in creating havoc between Sheila and Jake.

Shawn Diddy's Sheila is a gem of mixed emotions trying to fit into whatever role Jake wants her to play. The youngest performer, eighth-grader Sophie Crawford, is particularly effective in her scenes with Gary Wheeler's Jake and in her meeting scene with young Maggie.

Having appeared in more ACT productions than any other actor, Carolyn Craighead, as Jake's sister, Karen, alternates between sympathy and impatience. Gale Nemec is well-cast as Jake's psychiatrist, Edith, showing a fine sense of comic timing.

The multilevel set design worked well in the intimate theater space. Simple movable props - a wooden bench, along with several high stools - created room spaces. The simple set contained only two doors and provided for seamless exits and entrances.

Tickets can be reserved for Friday and Saturday performances of "Jake's Women" by calling 410-636- 6597.

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