Northlight Theatre

Having heard the gushing praise of a friend who’d caught Jar the Floor in previews, I expected the play to be the “hilarious . . . sharp-witted and sharp-tongued” comedy promised in Northlight’s press release. What I saw was a sometimes funny, sometimes moving, more often just plain depressing dissection of a family–somewhat reminiscent of that great American play about dysfunctional families, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, though Jar the Floor is more baldly manipulative.

Set in Park Forest, Illinois, Jar the Floor concerns four generations of African American women who get together for the 90th birthday of the family matriarch, MaDear–and then use the occasion, in the great tradition of American naturalism, to bicker about the past. The granddaughter (MayDee) and daughter (Lola) argue with MaDear, who’s getting a little senile, about whether she ever taught school or drove a car. (Lola: “The only thing you ever drove was Papa–you drove him crazy.”) Great-granddaughter Vennie complains that her mother, MayDee, was so obsessed with financial security and the trappings of prosperity that she was never there for her daughter.

All these apparently petty disputes, lead to a dramatic confrontation near the end of the play, in which the family’s dirty, dark secrets are revealed: MaDear’s husband thought she was “too black” to be attractive, and MayDee was sexually abused as a child by the boyfriend of Lola, who was too afraid of losing him to protect her daughter.

Again and again Cheryl L. West proves what an accomplished and crafty playwright she is. As in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, every personal attack is followed by an attempt to smooth things over, and every attempt to reveal the truth is followed by a denial. Thus MayDee’s rather cruel statement early in the play reminding MaDear that her husband’s been dead for a year is later balanced by the rather disturbing moment when MayDee and her mother and daughter fool MaDear into believing her husband is still alive.

How anyone could take this play to be a comedy is beyond me, though West does have a flair for witty, cutting dialogue. “I dont eat no canned biscuits by anyone named Hungry Jack,” MaDear quips in one of her more lucid moments. Later on, Lola describes the manager of a maid company as a “pimp in the cleaning service.” But a few comic lines do not a comedy make, or all of Shakespeare’s plays would be considered comedies.

Of course it’s possible that with a hipper audience the play might seem funnier. The audience the night I attended, which failed to laugh at West’s best lines, seemed heavily weighted in favor of old, sleepy white suburbanites. But even with a more sympathetic audience Jar the Floor couldn’t be confused with a laugh machine.

My guess is that West’s play was called a comedy to divert attention from the fact that it’s a formulaic, predictable drama. I do admire West’s skill as a playwright–Jar the Floor is in many ways a model of a well-made naturalist drama. Unfortunately, craft is not enough. For all her gifts West hasn’t managed to give her play a heart. We hear her characters’ complaints–most of them quite legitimate–but we rarely feel sympathy for them. And there’s nothing director Tazewell Thompson and her cast of fine performers (among them Candace Hunter, Crystal Laws Green, and Josette DiCarlo) can do to make the play seem warmer than it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.