Having read the reviews before watching the production on stage, I realized I was preparing myself for all those moments the critics reported: silences, the feelings of loss, frustrating unrealized potential, the perfect play for millennial misfits, etc.
What I didn't expect was the tears. I was barely able to clap and woot at the end, so much was I chocking on emotions that Annie Baker brought out through sparse dialogue.
I hand it to Mitchell Cushman. The direction was unbelievable. You (audience) are in the back of this cafe for the whole two hours and the world feels so much larger than it really is. We were seeing this "space space" the way Kevin Janos (KJ) and Jasper saw it.
Here are my thoughts as to why Annie Baker is pure genius - the kind Jasper and Kevin talk about.
We find out in one conversation early on that "The Aliens" was a proposed band title for KJ and Jasper. Jasper said he thought it was lame. Near the end, though, KJ lists off the band names once more, stopping at "The Aliens." We then understand the relevance of the name and how it resonated with KJ. He never says this, but we get it. This is the name he holds dear to his heart.
This is a big theme running throughout the entire show. Jasper never goes off to college but is an aspiring author; Nor does he know KJ in high school. They meet after KJ drops out of college first year and have been together ever since. There blossoming friendship seems to be founded on silences, hearty "bro" statements, and an inability to express any sort of emotion outside of anger and excitement. They are two passionate people.
Would I read Jasper's novel? YES. What was so interesting is how Jasper chose to reveal parts of his own personal past through his fictional main character (a character without a name). For example, when Jasper found out his ex was dating a new person named Sprocket, he transforms his rage and feelings into hard work, producing "20 pages." The end result is that his once placid and content character decides to become nomadic and move away. We can only imagine that had Jasper remained alive, he and KJ would have planned the same road trip and been thoroughly disappointed with what they saw in America.
Evan's poignantly shy and awkward comments also factor into Jasper's work. After admitting he doesn't celebrate the Fourth of July because it's weird to "sit in a football field and watch things explode in the sky," Evan blurts out that he hates America. Jasper looks at Evan - maybe even for the first time - seeing something more than a loner teen working at a coffee shop.
Perhaps this is the bitterness evoked in Jasper's main character after arriving in California and realizing it all looks "the same" as the rest of America. "Was Miller lying? Is he curled up underneath some billboard writing this shit with the drive in movie theatre offering a dim light?"
THE MAKING OF JASPER
What really struck me a few days after thinking about the production is how Annie Baker sets up Evan to take over Jasper's place. There were three important moments in which this became apparent:
- At the beginning during an early conversation in which KJ talks about what their friends are doing, he mentions one guy - Jasper's weed dealer - who now lives on a wind farm. Jasper asks, "how does he live on a wind farm?" Later in the production, two weeks after Jasper's funeral, KJ brings up the wind farm as a potential destination for him. And Evan replies, "how do you live on a wind farm?"
- After KJ storms off to the other side of the cafe, Jasper continues to belittle him - playfully - and talks about KJ's mental breakdown. We at this point begin to see KJ's character unfolding and get a glimpse into how he has coped with a mental illness. Jasper said KJ would walk towards people on the street and go "zip" to their face while touching their forehead gently. Like a baptism of sorts, KJ also does this to Evan after Jasper passes. He asks Evan to kneel. Evan respects the process and allows KJ the dignity of committing this act.
- Jasper sees Evan as a potential protegee - asking him if he smokes and if he writes poetry. Evan says occasionally - and coughs after inhaling. And he says he writes occasionally but comes full circle and says no, he doesn't write. In the final scene, KJ notices Evan smoking and asks him if he is addicted. Evan's response is, "yes. Well hopefully."
Further to these, we see Evan beginning a potential relationship with a CIT he met at "band camp" - Nicole - and we can only assume Evan's timid and shy behavior will lead him to be a good and loyal boyfriend. We also hope Nicole is a good person too.
The end offers us a glimmer of hope. KJ tells Evan he "loves him." Evan allows KJ to cry and to express emotions outside of anger - something KJ was not able to do with Jasper. KJ even tells Evan, "it's okay if you don't know how to cry." Evan later apologizes for running away from KJ after finding out about Jasper's overdose. These two moments of human affection give us hope that their blossoming friendship might allow for greater emotional connections - the type KJ needs and Evan is able to offer.
There are three mothers that factor a lot in this work:
- Jasper's mom who died when he was 15 years old - this we find out when he is reading a part of his novel and the main character loses his mom at age 15
- KJ's mom - the eccentric new age woman that Jasper is keen to mention whenever he can,
- Evan's loving mother that contradicts him over the phone about what to eat for dinner
We don't know much other than Jasper lost his mother. KJ at first says that that part in the novel seems too fabricate or obvious; at which point Jasper opens up and admits, "my mom died when I was fifteen."
I think the most heartfelt scene is at the end, when KJ tells Evan the story about "ladder." When KJ is unable to stop saying ladder his mom holds his hand and says, "you can say it as much as you like. I'm going to sit here and hold your hand with you." We feel for KJ. He clearly has a bright mind - having gone to school for math and philosophy. But there are so many other underlying issues that he may never have received proper support for. The sadness he feels at the moment is described in relation to his thesis: the logic charts, if p then q. This becomes his way of explaining this issue to Evan.
Moments before, Evan's mother had called to ask when he would be home for dinner and if he would prefer "carrots or asparagus." Evan seems annoyed by this question, but all of this is trivial in comparison to KJ's recent remark, "I want to kill myself." Evan doesn't leave him and stays to talk and listen. They bond over stories about their mothers.
There is so much more you can say about this production. I'll leave that to the other critics. All I can say is that it just really affects you. It's tough to verbalize in a way, so strong do you feel near the end. My heart goes out to KJ and Jasper and Evan. And my heart goes out to Noah, William and Maxwell for giving each of their characters respect and dignity.
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Thank you Coal Mine for continuing to challenge your audiences with relevant and insightful subject matter.