Basil Keimendahl’s Orange Julius, making its world premiere in a production at Moxie Theatre, is a rich and thoughtful study of family, love, and the bonds brought about by war. It is, however, far from the Hallmark version of these themes and requires audiences to persevere until meanings become clear.
Julius (Jeffrey Jones) is a Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange during combat. In later life, he has developed cancer and that cancer has spread to much of his body. Caring for him has become too much for his wife, France (Dana Case), and his daughter, Nut (Rae K. Henderson), has come to help out.
But, Nut has an agenda to be worked on as well: she wants to connect with her father as male. Nut is “queer:” she dresses like a man and frequents gay clubs. She fantasizes about being in her father’s war experience as one of his comrades. She’s also recovering from substance addiction, and she’s got the clarity of vision that comes from the painful process of facing up to one’s own participation in a disease. Nut shares this characteristic with Julius, who has become mostly stoic about his impending death.
Mr. Kreimendahl’s play skips around in time, moving from the immediate care-giving situation to flashbacks of earlier family life and Nut’s fantasies about fighting with her father in Vietnam. Much of what happens in the play is relatively insignificant by itself (I wanted to say “banal,” but that’s the wrong word for it). What matters are the little things dropped in conversation, which, when layered one on top of the other, work to provide a depth that is emotionally moving.
none of these pieces of information is important in and of itself – it’s the layers that matter
Mr. Kreimendahl has an uncanny ear for what is fresh and true. He was born well after the Vietnam War ended, but his war scenes evoke the comradery of war without resorting to phony heroics of war films (Steve Froehlich plays Ol’ Boy, Julius’s combat buddy, with the requisite macho gusto).
On the home front, we learn that Nut’s sister, Crimp (Wendy Maples), has grown from a pestering older sister into a responsible adult who is, nevertheless, on the sidelines of Julius’s last days. We also learn that there is an older brother, unnamed and unseen, who doesn’t make it home before his father’s death.
Again, none of these pieces of information is important in and of itself – it’s the layers that matter.
Will Davis, a New York-based director and friend of Mr. Kreimendahl, handles the time-jumping and layering in surprising but effective ways. Working on a sparse set, by Victoria Petrovich, and with spare but evocative lighting by Jason Bieber, he puts Julius and Nut in the center of the action and mostly keeps France and Crimp on the sidelines. Yet, we’re often aware of their presence, even when off-stage, as they are sometimes visibly lurking, waiting for an opportunity to engage again. Mr. Davis also encourages his cast not to underline any of the qualities that might be sensational – through his work, the audience comes to the play instead of the play to the audience.
All of the company members respond with layered performances of their own. At the center, Ms. Henderson has the most challenging role, featuring difficult monologues and a good deal of physicality in the war scenes. Ms. Henderson moves through the play as a person with wisdom and perspective beyond her years.
Coming off of a marvelous performance in Intrepid Theatre’s The Quality of Life, this past July, Mr. Jones lands another bullseye as a man tormented in some ways accepting in others. Ms. Case, Ms. Maples, and Mr. Froehlich each have an arc to play and do so in an effective manner.
Orange Julius is not just a promising play by a young writer. It’s an assured, mature, work that challenges and moves well beyond expectations. Thanks to Moxie for recognizing the talent and having the vision to bring it to San Diego audiences.