Human beings live on a knife’s edge between sorrow and maybe something a little better. In playwright Grant MacDermott’s often engrossingly empathetic Jasper, a working-class Queens couple has been plummeting for eight years as they care for their congenitally disabled child while fiercely trying to defy gravity. If these long-suffering parents, Andrea (Jessica Pimentel) and Drew (Dominic Fumusa) have had any sort of mental respite from their vertiginous nightmare, it comes from the belief they’re falling hand in hand. But, after so many years and cruel disappointments, they can each feel their grip loosening.
The titular Jasper is Andrea and Drew’s child. Never appearing onstage as a flesh-and-blood character, he instead is mostly represented by the sounds of the machines keeping him alive, along with an occasional anguished cry. It’s an effectively haunting way to imagine the unimaginable, with Jasper’s parents rounding out the bleak picture through references to blocked breathing tubes and their bedridden son’s bathroom needs. Andrea and Drew try to temper their pain with humor, but the smiles are mirthless for both them and the audience.
Quickly projecting the type of intimacy usually associated with time and tragedy, Pimentel and Fumusa are, in fact, so heartrendingly convincing in depicting their connection to one another that it becomes even more upsetting when Drew’s fidelity to Andrea is tested by Shayla (Abigail Hawk), a single mother he meets on the train to work. That Drew’s motivation for a marital lapse turns out to be much more than carnal is devastatingly explored, with Fumusa’s performance deepening as the allure of “normalcy” increases for his character. As for the outwardly tough-as-nails Shayla, whose healthy child we also never see, she eventually reveals everything that is inexorably chipping away at her self-confidence: an indifferent ex; a demanding career; and, most damagingly, a growing sense of loneliness. Despite being the putative other woman in a particularly fraught love triangle, Shayla emerges as a sympathetic figure, too, which says a lot about Hawk’s acting ability, as well as MacDermott’s humane writing.
At its best, Jasper has a rivetingly naturalistic tone. But, admittedly, there are a couple close-to-death moments for Andrea and Drew’s son that annoyingly flood our senses with overblown theatrical lighting and sound effects, designed respectively by Robin A. Paterson and John Gromada. It’s as if director Katie McHugh suddenly became worried the play was too good at being emotionally honest. MacDermott also does himself no favors by tacking on a mawkishly contrived ending that desperately tries to hide its flaws through a final flourish of ambiguity.
Cut away all of this manipulative chaff and what remains is a play whose execution matches its ambitions. In their small outer-borough apartment, rendered with perfect underwhelming accuracy by Michael Gianfrancesco, Andrea and Drew have been essentially banished from the wider world because their son is sick. They have no real friends, and their pretend ones just pity them. Their claustrophobic lives revolve entirely around Jasper, and, while trying to support each other through the trauma, false hope, and boredom of being his caretakers, they also invariably disagree about everything from the inconsequential to the ineffable.
Most poignantly, when Drew starts to wonder if maybe their son’s survival has been the opposite of a blessing, Andrea expresses horror for a thought that, thanks to Pimentel’s touchingly subtle performance, we know she’s had herself. To its strongest credit, MacDermott’s play affords all three of its actors the opportunity to find meaning beyond their characters’ words. Though, of course, with a less capable trio, this sort of dramatic freedom could have been a disaster.
Jasper (through October 6, 2022)
Yonder Window Theatre Company
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://yonderwindow.co/
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission