Written by Woody Eney and directed by Chuck Tweed, "Call Me Henry" is the third world-premiere play in Jewel Box Theatre's current season, and won the venue's 2006 playwriting contest.
Set in 1947 Fairfax County, Va., "Henry" tells the story of the Grant family and its three generations of Henrys: the warmhearted and wise grandfather; his son, who calls himself Hank; and Hank's son, Henny, who longs to be called Henry, like his grandfather, and is a stranger to his own father.
The best part of the show is the relationship between Henny (Braden Sayers) and Henry (Randall Hunter). Beyond generating most of the humor in the production, they form its emotional heart. Sayers delivers a performance that is above par for a child actor, and what he may lack in the more somber moments, he makes up for with sheer, bright, blinking-eyed enthusiasm.
Hunter has been a standout in every production I've seen him in, and his turn as Henry is no exception. He delivers a performance that is earnest, tender and charming, bringing a reality to the all of the familial relationships, especially with his grandson.
Hunter's presence is sorely missed in the second act, which leaves the dramatic heavy lifting up to James Joslin as Hank and Michelle Swink as Doris, Henny's mom. Unfortunately, what were dismissible flaws in Act 1 become impossible to ignore with Hunter's absence and the increasing dramatic demands of the narrative.
Swink plays a far-too-happy Doris, willing to forgive her husband and his many faults. She does get angry at Hank, but quickly warms to him again. The character would be more sympathetic if there were an underlying sadness and frustration hinted at long before she ever utters a line.
Joslin imbues Hank with plenty of nuance and quirk, but his explosions of temper toward Henny come so fast that he doesn't seems like a character reacting to a situation in real time, but rather an actor rushing through his lines. Swink and Joslin do create some romantic sparks in a flashback scene set before their marriage.
Paula Parkhurst, Linda McDonald and Pam Fields all do solid work in their respective supporting roles, with Parkhurst standing out in particular as Henny's teacher.
The fantastic set constructed by Richard Howells is reminiscent of the Jewel Box's "The Three Wives of Harry Simpson" in its effective recreation of a domestic space. In-the-round staging is hard to do, and while most of the seats in the house get played to sooner or later, try to sit in view of the couch to catch the great interplay between Henny and Henry. The costumes work well and are period-appropriate, and David Hester's lighting design has improved from past Jewel Box productions, adding some much appreciated atmosphere to key scenes.
While some of the revelations are a little predictable "? the result of too much foreshadowing in both the writing and performances "? "Call Me Henry" tries to tell a fairly layered and complex emotional story that succeeds on some levels, but still leaves room for improvement.