John and Jen are not lovers, as the title of John & Jen might lead you to believe, but children of a violently abusive father in the '60s. Jen, the older sibling, does everything she can to protect her little brother. But when she leaves for college, becoming a free-spirited, pot-smoking hippie and traveling to Canada with a young man who's avoiding the draft, John is left feeling bitter and betrayed. Even while fearing him, he has always half-identified with their father, and he now decides to join the Navy, be a man and go to war. He dies in Vietnam.
By the second act, Jen's lover has deserted her. She's back in the United States and raising their son — whom she's named John. Filled with guilt over the death of her brother, she holds this John stiflingly close. But he turns out to be a spirited young man with ideas of his own and a strong need to assert his identity. Clashes are inevitable.
Most of us think of musicals as light and entertaining. We don't expect them to express emotions this tangled and serious. But John & Jen represents a different genre, a small, intimate musical in somewhat the same vein as The Last Five Years, which was staged by Modern Muse a season or two ago and told the bittersweet story of a failed love relationship. There are only two characters, and the story is told almost entirely through music — vocals and a single piano, expressively played by Troy Schuh. The action doesn't pause for the songs, as it does in traditional musicals. Instead, there's a continuous sound environment that sometimes moves to the forefront of your consciousness and sometimes recedes into the background. The songs range from bright and spiky to softly lyrical to deliberately jarring, with no stop-the-show numbers. The focus is on story and feeling rather than showmanship and flash.
The Nonesuch theater is tiny and the ambience warm; we feel very much part of the action. The set consists of a few risers, and props are minimal. To suggest their changes in age and interests, the two actors simply move to the sides of the stage and don or doff various garments. None of this would work if Mark Giles and Gina Schuh-Turner didn't turn in wonderfully committed performances. But they sing and act well, and Schuh-Turner — whose role is the more complex of the two — brings a particular subtlety to the stage. Both acts begin with John curled up like a sleeping baby while Jen watches over him. The image of a grown man impersonating an infant could easily be ridiculous, but Giles and Schuh-Turner make these moments tender and convincing. They are also sometimes very funny, as when the teenage John wishes his big sister would just disappear and she fervently wishes the same of him, or when Jen morphs into a hideously loud and shrewish sports mom while watching her son in a Little League game.
We all bring our personal histories to the theater with us, and the Vietnam War played a huge role in mine. I found myself crying at the end of act one, thinking of all the Vietnam vets I worked with years ago at an anti-war newspaper in San Diego. The term "post-traumatic stress disorder" hadn't yet been coined, but I could see how hurt and troubled these young men were by what they had witnessed and, in some cases, what they had done. The power of the second act has a different source, though, in the honest depiction of the primal struggle between mother and child.
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John & Jen isn't perfect; sometimes the lyrics are heavy-handed. But overall, this is a fine, absorbing evening of theater that evokes themes none of us can escape, themes having to do with family and obligation to others, the need to protect our children and the need to let them fly — in short, the blessed and cursed complexity of love.