Review: “Life On Paper” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Mary Williamson and Joel Ewing/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

I am endlessly fascinating by the scripts produced at Jackalope Theatre Company. Attend any production created by this open-hearted, full-throated organization, and you are likely to appreciate the sharp, heady stories they tell, even if you find that the narrative onstage isn’t quite your cup of tea. I have never seen a play at Jackalope that I wasn’t instantly involved in; often, I am completely floored by the company’s artistic work. This past few months alone, Jackalope has delivered two electrifying gifts, “In the Canyon” and “Dutch Masters,” both of which had much to say about how we live now. If Kenneth Linn’s “Life On Paper” doesn’t hit quite as hard, or lead to as cathartic of a release for the audience, maybe that’s okay. Sometimes, it is good to sit with characters in their day-to-dayness, to see how they live their lives, and how they make choices to improve said lives and the lives of others.

Linn has a way with concept and dialogue, and that’s apparent from word one in this production. Mitch (Joel Ewing) is a forensic accountant, whose intense need to solve one of math’s greatest puzzles lead to an epic flame-out in his past. He has been tasked with assessing the life value of the sixty-third richest man in the world, who has died in a plane crash and whose Wisconsin hometown desperately needs his posthumous funding in order to stay afloat. Standing by his side is his cousin, Ivan (Guy Wicke), who is a double-A baseball burn-out and a similar math whiz. On the opposite side of the battle is Ida (Mary Williamson), the town’s assessor, who is determined to prove that the billionaire’s value can’t be set in dollars and cents, but in impact on the local lives he boosted. The stage is set for an epic showdown over what it means to succeed or fail, win or lose, preserve or terminate. All this happens in an everyday Wisconsin town, in its many offices, restaurants, and one tiny hill that holds special meaning for Ida.

Plays involving math don’t often have a lot of actual math in them, but Linn stakes whole scenes on whether characters are able to poetically explain theoretical problems and mathematical models. His blend of awe for math and realistic expectations about flawed people makes for a fun cocktail, but at times, the larger ideas at play subsume the character work being done. Mitch starts out a closed-off jerk, and if his descriptions of math cannot make the audience relate to him, the whole project falls apart. It’s particularly important that Ida see his truth, as the two use mathematical understanding to connect romantically. Honestly, I got lost in the numbers a bit, but if Linn gave early scenes of connection as much room to breathe as he does later, confrontational scenes, then the character stakes would be clearer, and the journey we are on would seem less metaphorical and more earth-bound the whole way through.

Director Gus Menary does an excellent job with the actors, really digging into the extra-heady material, and creating back and forth rhythms that generate entertaining tennis matches. Ewing and Williamson have an off-beat chemistry that really suits the Capra-esque “Will the cynical guy make good?” storyline. Wicke is absolutely charming as a humane mechanic of numbers, and Satya Jnani Chavez plays a pivotal role at the end of the play; her upbeat humbleness does a number on the viewer. It also cannot be overstated how deep the waters run in Williamson, whose every thought sings out the depths of her character’s yearning and sadness.

Ryan Emens’ scenic design expertly nails the look of small-town offices, RV kitchens, and hotel breakfast buffets. But his use of a “Welcome to town”-esque billboard at the back of the stage hinders movement during scene changes and slows the comedic pace of the show. Stefani Azores-Gococo’s costumes evoke shaggy corporate style, while Claire Sangster’s lights lift us into the heavens at opportune moments.

If you are looking for an evening of theatre examining success and failure, “Life On Paper” fits the bill, gently unraveling individual problems until we see how our problems are always connected to, and might in fact be solved by, the lives of other people.

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Numbers add up in this tale of failure and meaning.

Show: “Life On Paper”

Company: Jackalope Theatre Company

Venue: The Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway)