Stage Door Review 2023

Jenny’s House of Joy

Sunday, August 13, 2023


by Norm Foster, directed by Lisa Horner

Norm Foster Theatre Festival, Mandeville Theatre, Ridley College, St. Catharines

August 11-20, 2023

“It’s life that matters, nothing but life” (Dostoevsky, The Idiot)

By programming entire seasons of plays by Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific and most performed playwright, the Norm Foster Theatre Festival has been a major force in demonstrating to the public how varied Foster’s work really is. This season in particular has shown audiences a side of Foster most people have never seen. This is the first time that Foster’s companion pieces set in the American West in 1871 – Outlaw (2004) and Jenny’s House of Joy (2006) – have been presented by any theatre in the same season. While both plays are still comedies in the most general sense, setting the action in the past outside of Canada seems to have freed Foster to explore topics unusual for comedy in a style quite different from his plays set in the present. I reviewed Outlaw when the Foster Festival presented it in June this year. Jenny’s House of Joy only confirms that people should broaden their conceptions of what a “Norm Foster play” can be.

Though Jenny’s House of Joy was written after Outlaw, it serves a prequel to that play. In Outlaw we hear about Jenny’s House, the women there and the men who visit them. One of these is cattle baron Roland Keets, a main character in Outlaw. We hear that he visits one of the girls Anita because he wants to improve her mind and lends her books to read which she actually does read. In Jenny’s House we meet Anita. At the start of the play she is reading Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) that Keets lent her. At the end she is reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869) and it’s clear she understands the main points that Dostoevsky is making.

The action is set in the parlour of Jenny’s House of Joy, a high-class brothel in Baxter Springs, Kansas, a real place and the town where the murder in Outlaw occurs. Jenny, the madam, receives the news that one of her girls has got married to one of her clients and left town. At the same time, a young woman, Natalie, shows up at Jenny’s House looking for a job. Natalie was once a member of society through her marriage to a doctor, but his physical abuse of her became so intolerable she has left him and is now penniless. She has never done sex work before in her life but she can’t imagine it would be any worse than having sex with her brutal husband. After a detailed interview with Jenny, Jenny decides to hire the frightened, fragile-looking Natalie for a trial period of two months.

Frances, Jenny’s oldest employee, takes an instant dislike to Natalie and thinks the young, educated woman is not as innocent as she looks. In contrast, Anita, who hopes one day to break into society and leave sex work behind, takes an instant liking to Natalie and they become friends.

All four women have private concerns. Besides Anita’s aspirations and Natalie’s having to accustom herself to a new job, Jenny’s father, whom she gladly left 18 years ago, is dying. Frances becomes the object of hatred of the elderly woman Clara, whose husband has sought solace with her rather than with his own wife.

Foster skillfully traces the interlocking fates of the four women over the two months of Natalie’s trial period. The main revelation is that Frances is right. Natalie proves to be far more enterprising than we would have suspected which causes added friction within Jenny’s establishment. Like Outlaw, Jenny’s House of Joy concludes with a series of surprises, which, on reflection, are all logical and satisfying outcomes of what has gone before.

For the first time in its history this Foster Festival production has an all-female cast and creative team. Lisa Horner, much loved as an actor and singer, makes her directing debut with this show. She proves that she has an attention to detail in acting and in interpreting the text that matches and actually exceeds that of some of the most experienced directors.

Horner empathizes with the very different plights of all five of the play’s characters and because of that we, too, empathize with the characters, including the angry Clara driven to distraction by her husband’s infidelity. Catherine McGregor plays Jenny as a steely character, an efficient, no-nonsense businesswoman who does not think that her business which provides a much-valued service in Baxter Springs, should be run or regarded any differently than any other business in town. Jenny’s high-mindedness and common sense imbues the entire business and, indeed, our view of Jenny’s business.

Anyone who comes to Jenny’s House of Joy expecting to revel in lewdness will be disappointed. The high tone that Jenny establishes, so well embodied in McGregor, means that all discussion of what precisely the girls do who work there is couched in euphemisms and metaphors. Much of the play’s humour comes from our teasing out the meaning of the girls’ discussions.

While McGregor may portray Jenny as steely meaning determined, unswerving and impervious to insult, McGregor’s Jenny is also steely meaning tightly wound. From early in the action, McGregor gives the impression that Jenny has so many issues to deal with that she is expending a lot of energy to keep herself controlled. Jenny manages this control through Act 1, but when Natalie brings up a plan that will threaten Jenny’s business, McGregor rightly has Jenny explode and release the tension that had been building up in the character until that point. It’s a finely detailed performance and one of McGregor’s best, including her 15 seasons at the Shaw Festival.

Jenny’s polar opposite in the play is Frances who has been working for Jenny for four years and is now 45. It is primarily Frances’s sardonic comments that form the main humour from an individual in the play. Julia Dyan has Frances’s full measure as a character and perfectly times Frances’s remarks to deflate any of the positive or high-flown thoughts that the others may have. Frances drinks throughout the show and Dyan is excellent at gradating Frances’s drunkenness from her early morning tipple to her late evening search for oblivion.

None of Foster’s characters is simple and it may take us a while to understand why Frances drinks so much. Once we learn in Act 2 that she is 45, the penny should drop. In retrospect we can see that from the start Dyan has shown us that Frances is all too aware that her marketability is dropping as she ages and we can see that much of her negative humour lies in preventing others from setting their hopes too high for the future. Act 2 also shows us that despite her remarks Frances feels protective of the other girls because they are her family. Dyan has present Frances’s complexity well enough that Frances’s sudden display of bravery is fully believable.

Before Natalie arrives, Anita is the main innocent of the group. Kelly J. Seo gives Anita a sweet nature and we would like to believe that Anita’s dreams of become a society lady are possible even if secretly we know they are not. Seo makes us understand Roland Keets’s interest in Anita. Seo shows that Anita has a lively intelligence and does not shrink from reading even the most difficult books Roland gives her. But although Anita is vivacious and optimistic, she is also Foster’s prime example of the crime of excluding women from education leaving them entirely dependent on men for status and livelihood.

The newcomer, Natalie, is an example of how even a young woman who once belonged in society still has no skills to provide for herself once she is forced to leave her husband. Foster does nothing to soften the injustice of the fact that Natalie has nothing to turn to to support herself but prostitution. Natalie has the greatest arc to traverse of any of the characters – from frightened innocent to ingenious and savvy would-be rival of Jenny. Newcomer Zoë O’Connor gives a perfectly assured performance as Natalie, showing us how Natalie grows step by step from confusion to confidence and even to over-confidence. O’Connor makes us credit every moment of Natalie’s transformation.

The one woman who is not part of Jenny’s community is Clara, the wife of one of the new clients of the house. Clara is outraged that her husband learning he has not long to live should sully himself by visiting Jenny’s House. This is a great role for Donna Belleville, who in 19 seasons at the Shaw Festival never had the chance to play a character who so fully loses her grip on reality. Belleville musters such intensity as a madwoman for her Act 2 entrance that the scene is not funny at all but frightening. It’s a fantastic scene that Foster, the actors and the director handle beautifully.

Outlaw and Jenny’s House of Joy maybe companion pieces because they are both set in the same time and place and refer to each other. But they are also companion pieces in that they show Foster experimenting with the limits of comedy as a genre. Foster himself calls Jenny’s House “A serious play with a comic bent”. Jenny’s House is a serious play because at no point does Foster make light of of the women of Jenny’s House or the work they do. One might have entered the performance expecting a bawdy farce, but one leaves the performance with a greater understanding and respect for the choices that women of the past, and not only the past, have had to make in a world that gives them so little support.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Kelly J. Seo as Anita and Julia Dyan as Frances; Zoë O’Connor as Natalie; Catherine McGregor as Jenny. © 2023 Black Frame Cinema.

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