In Wendy Hammond’s Julie Johnson, a New Jersey mom goes on a life-changing journey without ever straying far from home.
Initially, she’s a high school dropout married to an abusive, controlling cop as she tries her best to raise their two teen daughters. When the audience says goodnight to Julie a couple of hours later, she has earned a GED, is studying hard to get into a prestigious science-focused college, and is trying hard to cope with the pain of losing the woman whose love and support helped transform her.
From start to finish, Julie doesn’t leave Hoboken. But her courage in the face of frustration, criticism and a judgmental world shapes a new woman headed for a better life.
Kim Ehly, the founder and artistic director of Fort Lauderdale’s Kutumba Theatre Project, played the title role in Julie Johnson when the now-defunct Sol Theatre Project produced the play in 2006. Now Kutumba is revisiting the play in an absorbing production staged by Ehly.
By setting the mid-’90s play in the late 1980s, Ehly places Julie (Valentina Izarra) and her best pal Claire (Casey Dressler) squarely into a blue-collar world unlikely to have much empathy for women who forge a romantic connection after leaving their marriages. The deeply ingrained homophobic attitudes of that time and place are voiced by Claire, who is initially appalled when Julie confesses her evolving feelings.
Yet for a time, anyway, both women give themselves over to their unexpected passion, leading to one of the play’s most clever scenes: Julie and Claire sit side-by-side on a park bench, careful not to touch as assorted neighbors pass by, but verbally revisiting their lovemaking from the night before. Ehly and her actors make the moment funny and hot.
Julie Johnson doesn’t work without an appealing Julie, and Kutumba’s production certainly has one in Izarra. She is quirky as she reveals to Claire the stacks of science magazines she has hidden from her hubby, as if they were porn; sympathetic as she bears the verbal abuse of her self-centered daughters Lisa (Skylar Voelker) and Frankie (Julianna Rector); needy and determined as she interacts with her influential teacher, Mr. Miranda (Doug Wetzel). Izarra’s radiant Julie weathers each setback, and the audience roots for her as she pursues her dreams.
Ehly has said that she launched the LGBT-focused Kutumba to bring stories that reflect the community’s experiences to the stage, focusing most frequently on lesbian-themed plays. Julie Johnson, a piece about one woman’s successful search for her authentic self, is a resonant realization of Ehly’s mission.