Peter Nichols' skillfully written play is a rare combination of humor and poignancy as Bri and Sheila, the parents, reach the climax of their decade- long struggle to keep their relationship intact under the duress of Jo's presence.
As part of the therapy they have designed for their pain, the parents perform very funny - and, under the direction of Howard Rossen, very well- played - vaudeville routines that reenact the circumstances of their child's birth and their visits to incompetent, unsympathetic doctors. But the major source of the play's humor is Bri, who expresses his bitterness in caustic, witty remarks and almost childish pranks. He regards Jo more as a cruel joke - perpetrated by a God whom he likens to a rugby player kicking a football - than as a human being.
Sheila plays along with Bri in the vaudeville routines and is an appreciative audience for his jokes, but she is committed to Jo and treats her as a normal child as much as possible. She views Jo as divine punishment for the affairs she had before her marriage.
Roy Collins is adept at delivering Bri's devastatingly humorous lines. The problem with the character, though, is that Nichols has given him little but his brilliant wit; the man is so shallow that the actor playing him must find a believable personality that will make him something more than a mere comedian.
Collins only partially succeeds. He is an active, compelling presence, but his characterization doesn't clarify why Bri acts in the extreme way he does in the second act and at the end of the play.
Nichols also loads the play in Sheila's favor; she is mature, strong and loving while Bri is childish, weak and seemingly emotionally dead. And next to Collins' cool and empty Bri, Jeanne Cullen's warm, vulnerable, appealing Sheila is even more sympathetic than Nichols seems to have intended.
In the second act, Bri and Sheila are visited by friends Freddie and Pam and Bri's mother, Grace. Freddie is a meddlesome do-gooder, Pam an insensitive class snob, and Grace an overprotective mother and selfish person. These thankless roles are handled competently by Terrence Markovich, Laura Gardner and Peg French, respectively, although French and (to a lesser degree) Markovich seem to allow their unsuccessful efforts to assume English accents to get in the way of their portrayals. Young Michelle Todd does very well with the even more thankless role of Jo.
A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG
Written by Peter Nichols; directed by Howard Rossen; settings by Paul Pavis; costumes by Inge Malmstrom; lighting by Mark Oerter. Presented by South Jersey Regional Theater, Bay Avenue, Somers Point. Ends May 15.
Bri - Ray Collins
Sheila - Jeanne Cullen
Jo - Michelle Todd
Freddie - Terrence Markovich
Grace - Peg French
Pam - Laura Gardner