Jenny's House of Joy by Norm Foster
Produced by Jack Boyagian and directed by John Lunman
Presented by the Northumberland Players, October 28, 29, 30, November 4, 5 and 6
What is it about Norm Foster plays and their performances in a dinner theatre? So often, these groups like to rely on our highly regarded Canadian playwright because he creates believable, real life people who reveal their quirks and weaknesses. Dinner theatre audiences want laughter, and that is a good thing for those of us who want to be entertained plus enjoy a good buffet meal. I have no hesitation to plug the dinner at the Best Western in Cobourg as my roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were delicious.
In a number of his plays, Mr. Foster places his characters in uproarious and hilarious situations while not being afraid to create poignancy only a few moments later. The Northumberland Players’ production of Jenny's House of Joy, now in production at the Best Western Cobourg Inn and Convention Centre, is a delightful play that I did not know he had written. Directed with care and respect by John Lunman, this story of the lives of women in a Cattle town Kansas brothel in 1871 is funny, touching and sad.
I’m not a fan when a production breaks the fourth wall with the audience, especially when the performance is about to begin. In this Best Western dinner theatre setting, it was necessary for Jenny’s girls to introduce themselves to the audience and to make you feel comfortable. Two things about this play and this production have impressed me: a male playwright has created vibrant female characters, and a male director and producer have cast five talented and beautiful ladies who have gelled so naturally on the stage that, at times, I stopped making notes so I could watch the story unfold before me.
We meet the witty owner of the brothel, Jenny (charmingly played by Jody Legerwood) and two of her ‘girls’, the naïve and sweet Anita (an engaging performance by Amber Vibert) and the worldly brash and bold Frances (a saucy and smart performance by Heather Sessions). We also meet Clara (Anne Marie Bouthillette), a minor character who becomes a scorned woman on matters that become apparent as the story progresses. Ms. Bouthillette handles this dramatic moment with focused intensity. Then there is Natalie (a nuanced performance by Rachel Downey) who yearns to escape from an abusive relationship and arrives at Jenny’s bordello and will do any work in order to have a second chance at life. What unfolds in Natalie’s life in the second act becomes one of the major foci of the story. In listening to the women’s voices, each successfully maintains a slight, Western drawl without it dangerously becoming a caricature.
Given some of the recent misogynistic comments by Donald Trump in the presidential race, I wondered if Jenny's House of Joy might make an audience feel uncomfortable. From what I could see, this didn’t seem to bother anyone in this packed Cobourg venue. The sexual word play and innuendo (keep an eye out for the hot dog) in the context of the scene were amusing but never veered into the vulgar.
Since I had never seen the performance space at this Cobourg venue, I was amazed at the size of the stage. Bravo to producer Jack Boyagain and Stage Managers Lynne Templer and Rebecca Sumners for their work in organizing key individuals to create a feast for the eyes. Ken Forsyth’s set design was fluid and allowed for unobstructed entrances and exits. John Forder and his team have sturdily constructed and angled the set in such a way that the action of the play could be seen from any sight lines in the auditorium. Lighting design by Tim Russell and his team was effective. Jody Forsyth and her team of set dressers and Linda Cardie’s props have painstakingly worked hours to create the rust coloured atmosphere of the brothel complete with reminders that we are in the old west of 1870 - the sheen of the woodwork on the walls and the bar and the ‘scantily clad’ paintings of half dressed ‘soiled dove’ women are just two prime examples. Even the auditorium chandeliers became an effective prop in the sitting room. Costumes by Lisa Schnalzer-Missen and her team of seamstresses have created exquisite and stunning costumes of colour, frills and lace especially in the bloomers for each of the women. Alyssa England’s makeup and Muriel White’s hair designs created unique and five separate mystiques.
As with live productions of any nature, the sound design can sometimes pose problems. The selected music pieces to set the mood and to help in the scene changes worked beautifully. Sometimes sound feedback can pose problems as it did in the opening of Act 2; however, these talented performers remained professional and diligent and continued without missing a beat or line as the crew worked diligently, quickly and quietly as possible without disturbing the audience’s interest.
The Northumberland Players are celebrating their 40th season this year and their slate for 2016-2017 is something that I would like to check out. Go see Jenny's House of Joy and have dinner before hand. The girls will be glad to see you.
Jenny's House of Joy continues October 28, 29 and 30, November 4, 5 and 6 at the Best Western Inn and Convention Centre in Cobourg, 930 Burnham Street in Cobourg. Dinner and show tickets may be purchased by calling 905-372-2210 or 1-855-372-2210. For further information, please visit www.northumberlandplayers.ca.