Four performers and a director quite ably go about their business in the new play “Swimming With Jellyfish,” but the undisputed Most Valuable Player here is playwright Katie Grant Shalin, whose words crackle with authenticity. She’s written a beaut of a work that looks at the cracks in an American family. The final play in Essential Theatre‘s summer three-pack, “Jellyfish” is running through August 11 at Actor’s Express.
Its central clan is one of those picket-fence-from-the-outside types with all sorts of inner issues. Jim (James Baskin) is a lawyer and wife Lily (Ann Wilson) is a homemaker. They’re in their 40s, have been married a long time and have two children at opposite ends of the spectrum. Paul (Matt Busch) has graduated from an Ivy League school and relocated to his parents’ house to pursue a musical career, much to Jim’s alarm; now he stays stoned a lot as he pursues a band. Sister Gillian (Audra Pagano) is off to college in the fall, eager to start a life away from the family.
Jim has demons. He had an affair in the past and still feels guilty, volunteering to help Lily from time to time with her causes to clear his conscience. As the play opens, he picks up his cell phone and it’s clear that his ex-lover still wants him in her life.
Bill Murphey, himself a versatile actor, directs and takes full advantage of Shalin’s text, giving his players room to feel human and imperfect. The characters are rich and three-dimensional; each family member seems to have an individual, complex relationship with every other.
“Jellyfish” can be very funny at times, especially in the character of Paul, who is incredulous that his mother could actually go to the grocery store, forget his vegan food and make him fend for himself. But there’s plenty of pain lurking. Shalin, who teaches drama at Pebblebrook High School’s Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts, has written a vibrant first work, a slice-of-life play where the characters hide inner feelings until they sometimes burst out. One terrific scene finds Paul confronting Jim about his infidelity and refusing to let his father off the hook. With its comedy-drama feeling, family in crisis and aquatic animal title, “Jellyfish” is somewhat reminiscent of “The Squid and the Whale.”
Pagano goes over the top a few times, but for the most part she and the others make for a sound ensemble. In a standout performance, Wilson as the wife is a marvel: overbearing but protective, wounded but acerbic. When taking a family portrait, against everyone’s will, she orchestrates every detail: stances, attire, tie color.
Since 1999, Essential Theatre has produced summer festivals with all-Georgia plays focusing on new work. The other two plays this summer are “Stray Dogs,” Matthew Myers’ play about the relationship between a criminal and a teenage call girl, and Peter Hardy’s “Mysterious Connections,” a dark work about two women who meet and realize they can enter each other’s dreams. Hardy is also Essential’s artistic director.
The final scene of “Jellyfish” has a melancholy vibe that brings a lot forward — as well as explains the title — but it feels a little overeager, too preoccupied with reaching a resolution. Overall, however, this is a deeply felt and honest work, a production whose power sneaks up on you. It’s one of the nice surprises of the summer season. Shalin is a playwright to watch.