A Man of Inaction | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Man of Inaction 

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THE END OF THE ROAD

Roadworks Productions

at the Synergy Center

There is a peculiar problem in adapting John Barth's novel The End of the Road for the stage. The central character and narrator, a man named Jacob Horner, is almost utterly passive. He suffers from a debilitating psychological condition that renders him, as he describes it, "without weather." Jacob experiences periods not of despondency but of emotionlessness. During these times he will sit in a chair and chant meaningless phrases (a Pepsi jingle, for instance) simply to pass the time. This protagonist is articulate and charming, and he relates his story with great sardonic wit. But he is ineffectual; he often cannot make even the simplest decisions regarding parking a car or rising from a chair, because he doesn't care one way or the other. "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner" goes his opening line. Such torpidity and indecision are not usually the stuff of dramatic action.

In his brilliant staging of Barth's work, director Paul Edwards has grasped the idea that Jacob's inactivity is in fact the central action of the play. Jacob's very passivity leads him into a situation where he must finally take action, and the results are devastating.

Jacob takes a teaching position at a small teachers' college at the advice of a doctor he meets in a bus station while suffering from a spell of acute inertia. The doctor suggests that by teaching the strict rules of grammar and keeping his life as ordered as possible, Jacob might avoid such episodes. Jacob, not really caring one way or another, follows the doctor's orders.

Once installed at the school, Jacob strikes up a bizarre friendship with a fellow teacher, Joe Morgan, and his wife Rennie. None of them seem particularly fond of one another; in fact, it is Jacob's cold detachment and sense of logic that attract Joe. Joe conducts his life with the utmost efficiency, without the meddling of emotion, and he expects everything to operate only at its most essential level. As Jacob says as he watches Joe walking away from their first conversation, "Joe Morgan was the sort who heads directly for his destination, implying by his example that paths should be laid where people walk, instead of walking where the paths happen to be laid."

Rennie spends her life trying to live up to Joe's expectations. She tells Jacob at one point that "a lousy Joe is better than a first-rate Rennie." So naturally, when Joe makes the suggestion, Rennie presses Jacob to go horseback riding with her. She's friendly to Jacob only because it will make Joe happy, it seems. Jacob doesn't really care one way or another, so others decide for him.

Then one day, returning from a ride, Jacob and Rennie spy the logical and efficient Joe performing a strange masturbatory ritual. Not long afterward, Rennie and Jacob sleep together. In reflection, Jacob can't remember who might have initiated the act or why they performed it. When Joe finds out, he is upset only because he is not given an adequate explanation of their motives. He forces Rennie to continue the affair despite her protests because he believes their motives will be revealed. Jacob, in typical style, goes along with the plan. But when Rennie becomes pregnant and threatens to commit suicide because she's afraid it's Jacob's child, Jacob, as if roused from sleep, takes his first action of the play: he arranges Rennie's abortion.

Edwards emphasizes the theme of Barth's story by framing the entire production in inaction, with Jacob as its center. When the audience enters the theater before the play starts, Jacob is seated at center stage, idly jotting down notes of observation, with the other characters situated in various corners of the stage. He does the same at the end of the show, until the house has cleared. This image shows us the intensity of Jacob's inertia. It also makes the audience unsure of how to act. Is the play over? Do we clap? Do we leave? Everyone is reluctant to be the first to decide.

Edwards's staging and Angela Weber's set design bring things to their essential form. They vividly create various locations using only chairs, a desk, a set of hanging blinds, and a radio (avoiding what Joe Morgan would surely consider the nonsense of needless scenery). The chairs alternately serve as a pair of riding horses on a pleasant outing and a medical examining table for an illegal abortion.

Edwards's sound design of vintage radio programs and commercials also picks up the theme while helping to establish the novel's postwar backdrop (it was written in 1958). Jacob's vacant mantra of "Pepsi Cola hits the spot, 12 big ounces, that's a lot" is echoed with eerie cheerfulness by ghostly announcers. Even the static that lingers a little too long between stations serves as an aural metaphor for Jacob's malady.

Jon Mozes fleshes out Jacob's paradoxical personality with a complex combination of charm and loathsomeness. He's witty and seemingly carefree in his discussions with the Morgans, but he masterfully twists this affability as the plot gets more complicated. Kate Fry is equally well cast as Rennie, a woman who appears strong but is desperate to win her husband's approval. As Joe Morgan, Patrick McNulty uses a calculated jocularity to build the man of blind principle. Other fine performances are delivered by the rest of the ensemble, many of whom perform multiple roles with dexterity.

Roadworks Productions's adaptation brings the real essence of Barth's novel to light. Jacob Horner is a modern hero, who acts through inaction and as a result causes catastrophic harm. What could be more dramatic?

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