By Julia Doerr
Jagged Little Pill, The Lied Center for Performing Arts, Tuesday April 25, 2023
Inspired by and incorporating the music and lyrics of Alanis Morissette, this play by Diablo Cody is a shiny thing, sometimes illuminating its array of modern problems and sometimes burning an image onto the audience’s collective retina. “Jagged Little Pill” is now showing at Lincoln’s Lied Center, and I highly recommend it.
Performed on a delightful set full of bright lights, smoothly transported furnishings, and effective video backgrounds, the action moves seamlessly from one place to another—a living room, bedrooms, a coffee shop, a classroom, a party, a church, a street in New York, a hospital…and more. It’s one of the best theatrical sets I’ve ever seen, both attractive and utilitarian, all of its moving parts operating exactly as they should without drawing undue attention to the complexity of their workings.
The story focuses on the fictional Healy family of suburban Connecticut and is bookended by two annual Christmas letters composed by the mother, Mary Jane. The first provides exposition. We learn about the four members of the Healy family: Dad Steve, the workaholic; perfect son Nick, recently accepted to Harvard; rebellious daughter Frankie, adopted and black; and supermom Mary Jane, still suffering the lingering effects of an auto accident earlier in the year. What Mary Jane doesn’t include in the letter are the strain in the Healys’ marriage, the ongoing tension between Frankie and her mother, and her own problem with drugs. Mary Jane is addicted to painkillers and is reaching the point where she can no longer access them legally.
Adding a few more modern problems to the mix, 16-year-old Frankie struggles with her identity as teens do. She’s a young leader with aspirations to make the world a more just place, but she also struggles with being black in a white family and community–and a strong feeling she can never live up to the standard of perfection expected by her mother and exemplified by older brother Nick. Frankie’s best friend Jo is a lesbian and more than just a friend. Meanwhile, Nick has his own insecurities about perfection, and Steve is feeling sexually neglected by Mary Jane and urging her to go to counseling with him.
Morissette’s music perfectly expresses the feelings and problems of this family and their friends. It should, of course, since the play was written to showcase it. Much of it comes from her 1995 album, also called “Jagged Little Pill.” I especially appreciated the strong vocals provided by the female leads, Heidi Blickenstaff as Mary Jane and Lauren Chanel as Frankie. Act One highlights include “Smiling,” featuring Mary Jane and some other moms in a coffee shop, “Ironic,” set in Frankie’s writing class, and the powerful first act finale, “Forgiven.”
The show’s choreography and dancing are also emotionally powerful. While some of the dancers conventionally portray characters in the play, a few seem to be portraying more abstract ideas—such as a character’s younger self, inner demons, or emotions. For me, this worked; I was fascinated.
As the action of the storyline moves out of the Healys’ home and into the school and community, there are, of course, further complications and the addition of more modern problems. Frankie becomes involved with a new classmate, a young man named Phoenix, in spite of her relationship with Jo. Nick uncharacteristically decides to party with friends. The party becomes the setting for a rape, and major conflict ensues. The victim is further victimized by community opinion but also supported by Frankie and others who protest on her behalf. Nick, Frankie, and Mary Jane all struggle emotionally in the aftermath with some serious consequences that must be resolved by the end of the play.
In Act Two, the musical number that stood out the most for me was “You Oughta Know,” led by Jade McLeod as Jo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more burning expression of anger, enhanced by the equally fiery lighting used in the sequence. Powerful stuff. But probably the most important song was “You Learn.” It comes as part of the final scene, when Mary Jane composes her second Christmas letter, the culmination of “a year of figuring out.” It is a very different letter from the one which opens the show.
“You live, you learn. You love, you learn.
You cry, you learn. You lose, you learn.
You bleed, you learn. You scream, you learn.”
The jagged little pill could be many things, but ultimately it is life itself.
If you go: Jagged Little Pill at The Lied Center runs April 25-30, Tue-Sat 7:30PM with additional 2PM performances Sat-Sun. Tickets information can be found at https://www.liedcenter.org.
Julia Doerr is a retired high school English teacher with a lifelong love of theatre.
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