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THEATER REVIEW : 'Joined at the Head' Combines Humor, Pain : The comedy-drama serves up plenty of witty commentary about contemporary attitudes toward illness and life in general.


A curious thing keeps happening to Maggie, the glib novelist who narrates the true story of a friend battling cancer in Catherine Butterfield's comedy-drama, "Joined at the Head."

Each time Maggie starts to indulge in some dramatic embellishment to the story she's telling us, one of the other characters will interrupt and matter-of-factly contradict her with a description--less romanticized, perhaps, but far more accurate--of what really occurred.

It's a theatrical conceit with handsome payoffs in this strikingly inventive play, now in the last leg of its West Coast premiere production at Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre.

When Maggie waxes particularly eloquent about a moving glance exchanged by her stricken friend (also named Maggy, but with a "y") and Maggy's stoic husband, the feisty Maggy calls a timeout and takes her case directly to the audience.

"I can tell her heart's in the right place," she tells us. "But this is my life here and she's turning it into a Gothic novel." She then goes on to set the record straight. Rather than being immortalized as a heroic martyr, she'd rather be remembered as another person who got cancer, whose life had meaning just as all lives have meaning.

In the process, she neatly sidesteps the cliched pitfalls in the life-threatening illness genre.

Later on, when Maggy's husband, Jim, reveals his inner anguish in another direct address to the viewer, it's a scene that aches with all the longings and fears that go unvoiced between people.

Unsettled by her eroding control over the story she's telling, narrator Maggie apologizes at one point for all this fourth wall penetration, saying she "didn't mean this to be a Brechtian evening."

She needn't have worried. Where Brecht's asides and interruptions were designed to detach the emotions, the effect here is quite the reverse--by constantly violating our expectations, "Joined at the Head" forces us to experience its story with fresh emotions rather than conditioned sentiments.

The emotional tide pulls us as often toward laughter as it does to tears--though the subject is painful, the play serves up plenty of witty commentary about contemporary attitudes toward illness (and life in general).

How could it be otherwise, with playwright Butterfield--also a gifted comic actress--playing the afflicted Maggy? Snappy and disarmingly honest, her Maggy, despite the character's denials, is a truly exceptional and inspiring figure.

Jeff Allin's portrayal of Jim is equally adept--he brings depth and eloquence to a man who puts up a brave front against a keen awareness of the life possibilities that have eluded him.

As our increasingly unreliable guide through the story, Robin Pearson Rose's Maggie is suitably caustic and self-protective, but the performance is fairly unwavering. This is really Maggie's story after all--she learns a lot about herself from Jim and Maggy--and we should see more of the effect her experience has had on her.

In a few of the peripheral characters, director Pamela Berlin has compromised the otherwise impressive emotional authenticity of the piece for the sake of comic caricatures--Richard Tanner as a smirking New Age crystal salesman and John Towney as a pompous talk-show host are particularly distracting exaggerations who'd be funnier if they were played for real.

But minor blemishes don't obscure the fact that this remarkable new play offers a fresh take on an all-too familiar subject, and manages to be eloquent, profound and uplifting in the process.


* WHAT: "Joined at the Head."

* WHERE: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: Through April 10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

* COST: $28.50.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (805) 963-0761.

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