Jake spends a lot of time in his own head; he’s a writer, so it’s a natural place for him to be. As the title character in Valley Center Stage’s new production of “Jake’s Women,” opening Friday, Jake is also a husband, father, brother and therapy patient, but one who can’t entirely commit to any of his other roles.
That’s a problem for “his” women, the array of characters who populate both his real life and his imagination. They include his late wife, Julie, whom he finds easier to talk to than his current, very much alive wife Maggie, and the memory of his young daughter, more relatable than the actually college-age Molly. In person and in his mind, these women relentlessly urge Jake to crawl out of his shell and into the world in a Neil Simon tale that is both silly and sentimental.
“It made me laugh, it made me cry,” said director Michael Murdock, who was familiar with Neil Simon but not this play. He read the script for the first time recently when he began work on his first directing project for Valley Center Stage and said “I was intrigued that part of the setting is in Jake’s mind: I really wanted to see what that looked like on stage.”
Over the past two years, Murdock has spent a lot of time on the stage, as an actor and as crew with Valley Center Stage. He’s designed the lighting and run the lights and sound board for several productions and has acted in “Superior Donuts,” the recent “Mystery of Irma Vep,” and his debut role was in “Greater Tuna,” a two-man show in which he appeared with René Schuchter, the lead actor in “Jake’s Women.”
“Greater Tuna” was Murdock’s introduction to Valley Center Stage and Schuchter, while he’d been involved with the theater for several years at that point, had a very similar start in community theater.
“It was based on having seen a flyer for an improv class,” Schuchter said. A software developer who wanted to do something a little more creative in his free time, he said he hadn’t been involved in any theater since he was 13 and in a school production of “Tom Sawyer,” but when the instructor suggested he audition for “The Curious Savage” at the North Bend theater, he jumped in. He was cast in that show, then in “The Foreigner,” “A Christmas Carol,” “A Man for All Seasons,” and several other shows over the course of the past eight years. He’s also worked on the crew and as a director on past productions.
“I’ve been very grateful,” Schuchter said. “All along the way, the shows I was cast in weren’t based on having gone to schools,” or requiring a theater background. “Valley Center Stage was truly a nurturing environment.”
Murdock feels the same way about the little community theater, founded by Gary Schwartz.
“What drew me to VCS (and keeps me coming back) is the diverse variety of plays they produce,” he said. “That and the community of actors, designers, artists, builders, technicians, and administrative volunteers that keep this theatre going.”
A nurturing environment is a good place to be, too, when you discover, as Schuchter did, that “I’m on stage all the time.”
“Jake’s Women” is literally a one-man show. Hiding from the world in his apartment, Jake stays put while the important women in his life, a cast of seven, pop in and out, gradually pushing him out of his own prison.
Like Murdock, Schuchter hadn’t been familiar with the play before auditions. He said, “I wanted to get back into something,” after being away from the theater due to a busy period at work. He wasn’t terribly rattled by the size of the role, though.
“I had done ‘California Suite,’ by Neil Simon, so I did trust his work,” Schuchter said. “And Robin (Walbeck-Forrest) who was in ‘California Suite’ was in it, playing Maggie.”
Playing Jake does come with challenges, Schuchter readily admits. “He’s going through some things… He’s afraid of being at the mercy of someone else,” but he is a sympathetic character, too, Schuchter said. “I’m hoping I can express that to the audience… so they throw up their hands and say ‘Jake, you’ve got to get with it!’ but at the same time they feel for him.”
Jake is also kind of old-fashioned, giving voice to thoughts about women and their roles that could be considered controversial today. Schuchter struggled with some lines, he admits and discussed with Murdock how to address the problem of being true to what the author wrote.
After several discussions together and with other characters, Schuchter thinks he’s made his peace with those lines, in a way the audience can appreciate. “I can express it in a way, so when you have the other clothespins (elements of his personality) on either side, it happens to be something that he’s saying that has some importance in evidencing some truth about his character.”
“It’s always to me fascinating how the discovery of the character goes in kind of a spiral or circle,” Schuchter added. “There are lines and then at some point the character just shows up.” Then Jake has to get to work, at showing up in his own life.
“Jake’s Women” opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, at Valley Center Stage, 119 W North Bend Way, North Bend, and runs through Saturday, Feb. 17, with shows on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 11. Doors open 30 minutes before showtime.
For tickets and information, visit http://valleycenterstage.org.