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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Joanna's Husband David's Wife

I'm just beginning to realize how difficult it is to make another person happy. -- Joanna
When conflict stops, the curtain comes down. --- David

> Vaughn Armstrong (David), Lissa Layng (Joanna) in <i>Johanna's Husband David's Wife</i>
Vaughn Armstrong (David), Lissa Layng (Joanna) in Johanna's Husband David's Wife (Photo: Jerry Neill )
David may think he's talking about theatre, because he is a playwright, but in Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's microscopic evisceration of a marriage, it takes on a more personal tone. Based on her novel which was inspired by her own marriage to the late playwright Oliver Hailey and performed at the Fremont Centre Theatre, she succeeds in adapting it for the stage, a feat which is beyond many novelists. Her sense of humor enables her to cut and slice where necessary, though the last act could use shorter speeches and more dialogue. This is overall a passionate and very funny play.

Set between the 1960s and the 1980s, the play begins in 1985 when Joanna is writing a letter to her darling daughter Julia who is on the brink of marriage, explaining that she is leaving David. Joanna leaves Julia her journals but when David finds them, he begins his own letter to MY darling daughter Julia. Their story is told in flashbacks with each of the two giving their version of the marriage which began in 1960 when they both worked on a newspaper in Dallas. Julia got the summer job of entertainment reviewer which David wanted and invites him to share her press tickets to summer theatres.

When David goes off to the Yale School of Drama he persuades her to drop her application for a Fulbright Scholarship and marry him. Joanna feels nobody has ever needed her so much or loved her so much. David, a feisty bundle of nervous energy, feels he's marrying above him into Joanna's sedate affluent family and the two never come to more than an armed truce with their in-laws. Part of Hailey's skill is in what she only implies. Although their differences seem vast, the couple complement each other and, as the years go by, they cement each other's successes.

Joanna refuses to let David retreat to Texas during his periodic flops and failures and urges him on to a successful TV writing career which supports his stage writing. David is very frank about the need for money and one of the most telling scenes is when he criticizes Joanna's extravagance in buying a pink coat which she says makes her feel pretty. Joanna, initially a passive need-to-be-loved-at-all-costs type, quietly stalks out of the house and goes to a laundromat where she dyes the coat black and wears it for years.

The birth of two daughters and Joanna's failure to get screenwriting jobs because her anonymous work with David was uncredited fire her desire to write something of her own. Quoting J. D. Salinger, David tell her "write what you want to read!" And so, unable to think of a topic, Joanna just writes letters to friends and family. The response she gets from her father inspires her to write a book about him. (In real life, Hailey's first best-seller, A Woman of Independent Means, was based on her grandmother, Bess Steed.) As Joanna was for years introduced as David's wife, so David is now introduced as Joanna's husband. The second act, which seems to have more telling than showing, reflects David's quote When the conflict stops, the curtain comes down. It rises to one final conflict which precipitates a mid-life crisis and a credible and satisfying ending to the first 25 years.

This two-hander is well served by its cast. Lissa Layng is a piquant Joanna. Her mobile face expresses the humor and complexity in Hailey's character, as well as the strength and integrity beneath an initially insecure and irritatingly proper Texas girl. Vaughn Armstrong's David is a nervous feisty character, maddening to live with, impossible to leave. Norman Cohen, who also directed Hailey's A Woman of Independent Means, doesn't miss a comic beat here, making the characters' passion physical and the conflict essential, without losing the love and respect that make conflict positive.

Playwright: Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey based on her novel
Director: Norman Cohen
Cast:.Vaughn Armstrong (David), Lissa Layng (Joanna)
Set Design: Evan A. Bartoletti
Lighting Design: Carol Doehring
Costume Design: Lois Tedrow
Sound Design: Katie Dunn & Dick Spaulding
Running Time: Two and a half hours with one intermission Running Dates: August 5 toAugust 27, 2006.
Where: The Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Avenue, South Pasadena
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on August 5.
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