Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company
Written by Talor Mac
Directed by Loretta Greco
Sound Designer and Composer: Fan Zhang
Voice coaching by Rebecca Schneebaum
Dramaturgy by Shirley Fishman
Movement Consultant: Ryan Winkles
Featuring Stacy Fischer, Ella Dershowitz, Marceline Hugot, Ryan Winkles, Breezy Leigh
April 21 – May 21, 2023
The Calderwood Pavillion
527 Tremont St.
Boston, MA 02116
Review by Maegan Clearwood
BOSTON, Mass. — In an interview with dramaturg Shirley Fishman, Taylor Mac cites 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen as a major influence behind Joy and Pandemic, currently premiering at Huntington Theatre. “Content almost always dictates the form,” Mac says, and indeed, the hyper-naturalism of judy’s (more about Taylor Mac’s pronouns here) play complements the central themes of belief versus reality.
The playwright whose echoing influence I heard the loudest however, was one of Ibsen’s contemporaries, George Bernard Shaw. This is a play about ideas, lots of them, with characters who represent opposing societal viewpoints and a captivating script that broadly prioritizes intellect over feeling.
The first two acts of the play take place in 1918 Philadelphia during the onset of the Spanish Influenza and center on Joy (Boston local Stacey Flecher), an art teacher and Christian Scientist. Joy’s insistence that the physical world is merely an illusion butts up against the tangible, material-filled, hyper-realistic set (meticulously designed by Arnulfo Maldonado), as well as the threat of illness that lurks outside her art school doors. Conflict finally arrives in the form of Melanie (a captivating Breezy Leigh), the parent of one of Joy’s students, resulting in a lengthy interplay between two parents with diametrically opposed worldviews and lived experiences.
Joy and Pandemic is a wordy play. Some of the wordiness stems from its heavy expositional scenes (to be fair, showing the inner motivations of a Christian Scientist to an audience is no easy feat). Some stems from the Shaw-esque dialogue, with scenes structured like philosophical and dogmatic debates rather than interpersonal conflicts. Still, throughout these hefty first two acts, there’s the sense that something insidious and raw is bubbling deep beneath the surface.
Loretta Greco, Huntington’s Artistic Director and Mac’s longtime collaborator, infuses the story with much-needed physical energy. There’s a fair amount of slapstick comedy (often on the part of Pilly, Joy’s daughter, played by a very committed Ella Dershowitz), which, when combined with the naturalistic seriousness of the rest of the staging, makes for a distractingly uneven tone at times.
It’s a very busy production, between the dense script, cluttered set, and constant movement. Significant dialogue and visual beats often occurred simultaneously. I found myself paying attention with almost hyper-vigilance throughout the first half of play.
Luckly, when I returned from intermission, I was relieved to find that there was a payoff for my hard work. Time jumps ahead to 1952: Pilly (her older self played by Fischer) is caring for her ever-dogmatic mother, now literally on her deathbed as an onstage prop, making for some riveting visual storytelling. Melanie’s daughter, Marjory (Leigh), now an artist herself, visits her old school to make sense of unresolved childhood memories.
The first half of the play was the setup of a fuzzy, far-away mystery for two daughters to unravel. Emotions finally break free. Generational traumas – wrapped up in power, privilege, and oppression – come to light.
Joy and Pandemic is about a lot of things, perhaps too many things, but it’s not “about” COVID-19, for which I am grateful. It certainly gestures toward our contemporary moment: Joy embodies the kind of pervasive, individualistic white entitlement that continues to hinder our country’s desperate need for collective, equitable change.
A few on-the-nose choices (the title of the play and the blood-red “PANDEMIC” sign that looms over the set throughout the performance) feel a bit gimmicky, but for the most part, the play speaks for itself and invites the audience to make our own timely takeaways.
Joy and Pandemic is not an easy play to experience, but for me, the takeaways were worthwhile.
One of the many things that Joy and Pandemic is about is perspective: how and why do we see things the way we do? As a neurodivergent person myself, I couldn’t help but read Pilly, Melanie, and Marjory through that lens, and in the spirit of the play, I thought my reading worth mentioning.
In both acts, Pilly is perhaps the most textbook representation of a person with ADHD that I have ever seen onstage (I felt almost personally called out by her inability to stand still while talking on the phone). Meanwhile, both Melanie and her daughter Marjory see the world as one of logic and rules; Melanie in particular has a very limited conversational filter and tramples over social cues that other characters navigate with finesse.
What struck me the most about my reading of these characters is how out of place they seemed in the first two acts. When interacting with supposedly neurotypical characters, Marjorie and young Pilly come across as strange, comical, obvious outsiders.
But when it’s just Marjory and Pilly together in the third act, they seem so refreshingly alive and at ease (it helps that this act is explicitly queer, in stark contrast to the rigid heteronormativity of the first two).
Perhaps my reading speaks to the magic that happens when two neurodivergent people get to hang out together; how things just feel a little easier, a little lighter. But perhaps it also speaks to my own internalized biases: how I instinctively read neurodivergent people as weird when they’re in spaces that aren’t “for them.”
Of course, this is all heavy interpretation, and I recognize the dangers of pathologizing characters – and yet, I found myself appreciating the representation, however accidental or imagined on my part. Joy and the Pandemic is about many things, but perhaps it’s mostly about whatever a person happens to see into it. I saw the importance of queer, open spaces where people are able to come as their fullest selves: that’s where the real dialogue happens.