Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's recent review of Passengers
As Aunt Jack begins, the son, Norman (Nick Trengove), is trying his hand at stand-up comedy in San Francisco–with an appealing clumsiness one often sees in novice comedians–that also helps establish his queer bona fides. But when one of his dads, George (Jim Rupp), an academic in queer theory whose latest book has come under fire for what some in the community find heretical ("Fuck equality," he says, "We are not like straight people.") takes ill during a university lecture, Norman jumps on a plane to surprise him.
But it's George who surprises Norman, by dying just a few hours after Norman's visit. This throws the family–Phyll (Jennifer McGeorge), Norman's birth mother; Ian (Ryan Marchand), Norman's ex-boyfriend who had remained close to George and his husband, Jack Sable (Joseph Alvarado), a celebrated drag queen–into a certain amount of chaos, especially when they learn Norman has brought his new partner Andy (Emily Steelhammer) along. The boy they knew as irrevocably gay is now what? Straight? Bi? Questioning? After he's accused of having "a quarter-life crisis," the family get down to the business of planning a funeral, honoring George's last wishes (including that Jack perform a Judy Garland number in what was once a downtown New York gay club but is now a Whole Foods) and sorting out some long-simmering conflicts.
Although the cast is nicely balanced, working well with each other, director Jeffrey Hoffman too often cranks the conflict level to 11, which tends to undercut the realism of the family's drama. There are plenty of laughs here, but Hoffman often puts his thumb on the comedy scale to a degree that some of the best lines feel forced. With a gentler touch, the comedy might have had even more emotional impact.
The set (by Kate Boyd) is nicely done, showing us a modest New York City apartment, with plenty of room for the more physical moments in the play. Most of the action takes place in the apartment, but when Hoffman needs to take us to different locations, a curtain stretches across the scene, ensuring our focus is on the actors, not on the detailed interior of George and Jack's apartment.
As Andy, Steelhammer plays the ultra-woke young woman with terrific confidence. Statements that could feel too politically correct come across as perfectly reasonable and sincerely held. Because they are. We can see why Norman has fallen for her–though the fact that she is fine with his hooking up with men helps a lot.
Nick Trengove is appropriately conflicted as a young man struggling to find his way in the world. His tentativeness is endearing–and understandable–nd Trengove often wears an expression that seems to say, "you still like me, right?" Jim Rupp plays the academic George with a tremendous sense of a well-earned I-could-give-a-shit-what-anyone-else-thinks attitude, without it descending into vitriol or spite.
Despite its faults, Aunt Jack is an endearing journey into how one family deals with their crises with tremendous love and patience. This deep understanding for Norman's challenges is neatly summed up when George tells him, "You can't choose who you fall in love with. That's what makes it love."
Aunt Jack runs through October 16, 2022, at New Conservatory Theatre Center's Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit NCTCSF.org or call 415-861-8972.