Jennie Webb: An Indie Theater Profile by Henry Murray
I was new at my job as Literary Manager at Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles and unaccustomed to reading scripts that hadn’t been vetted, rehearsed, produced, and published, and so I didn’t know how to react to the first hundred or so scripts I read in trying to put together a new play reading series. Serving the playwright was the point, duh, but most of the plays that came in didn’t feel like plays yet. Then, out of the fog came two plays by Jennie Webb. There was much to love in each of them and I was deeply impressed. There were moments when I could have been reading Beckett or Ionesco or other great experimenters of the last century and yet there was something about the placement of a compelling narrative in a mundane setting that kept me amazed. There was a unique humor at work that kept me grinning and alert to the details of the text moment by moment. Both plays were windows into the world of women—old relationships, new relationships, sisters, friends—and both were dramaturgically “other” as well, yet familiar and satisfying at the same time. Also, there was a confidence and professionalism inherent in the work the made me feel secure in the knowledge that while what I was seeing was new to me, it was, nevertheless, accomplished work that needed to be in front of an audience.
The two plays were Men And Boxes and Yard Sale Signs. But, which one to put forward? I put it to the literary committee and Yard Sale Signs was chosen. The play has all the qualities detailed above and is the story of a group of women, a kaleidoscope of personalities and ages, who meet mostly by chance in the communal dressing room of a discount clothing shop. The overriding metaphor (to my eyes) is the question of the individual identities of these women as they try on various outfits and ask the inevitable, “Is this really me?” These are women who have made interesting choices with their lives, defined themselves against the more traditional roles their mothers chose, and must pay the price of being an authentic individual: uncertainty. The one woman who has made the traditional choice of marriage and children (in a beautiful comic-surreal touch) actually loses parts of her body onstage. The only man who makes an appearance is decidedly feminine in his gender outlook, which seems to add a full chord to Jennie Webb’s topic.
Rogue Machine Theatre did a reading of Yard Sale Signs as part of the first year’s new play series and it was well received by the audience. This year we did another reading but as a presentation to the full company for consideration as part of our upcoming season. It got a resounding “yes!” and will be produced this fall. I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
Jennie’s newest play, hot off the press, called Anticipating Leftovers, a play about lingering and moving on, is a delight to read and is classic Webb territory. The unexpected location this time is just outside the door of a suburban home, where inside, a kind of wake is occurring for an in-law of the woman of the house, designated in the text as the “woman in charge.” Over the course of the afternoon fading into evening, she and her husband, the “understanding man,” move the necessities of life, food, chairs, and books, out of the house and onto what might be the carport, pushed out of their own home by the brutally inane gestures humans make when confronted with death. While the characters are not exactly my next-door neighbors, the surface textures of the play are the ordinary tribulations of life, trying to cope with relatives who seem like alien life forms, nosy neighbors, and becoming exhausted by the effort it takes to maintain a marriage…and getting a second wind. The beauty of the play is in Jennie’s gift with language, the exposed human psychology compulsively working itself out and her amazing ability to highlight the absurd in the everyday. The beauty of the playwright is that she writes about topics that are important to us without ever being transparent or obvious.
Additionally, Jennie Webb pursues her life as an arts critic and reviewer and lecturer. She is playwright in Residence at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum and is a founding member of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative (LAFPI). You can check out their website or for a more complete listing of Jennie’s remarkable plays, go to jenniewebbsite.com. I am quite proud of my growing friendship with this remarkable and talented woman.
posted June 18, 2010