Kenneth Lin’s earnest and engaging new play, receiving its world premiere at Jackalope, sets out to prove there’s more to life than algorithms
Theater review by Kris Vire
Mary Williamson and Joel Ewing in Life On Paper
What’s a life worth? Or more specifically, what is your life worth, right now? Taking into account your age, medical history, environment, number of dependents, projected potential earnings and a host of other semi-enumerable factors, what dollar amount could be applied to the life you lost if you were killed in an accident today?
That’s the kind of question Mitch Bloom (Joel Ewing), one of the two prime characters in Kenneth Lin’s thoroughly charming world premiere at Jackalope, is paid to answer. As a forensic economist, Mitch applies economic methods and formulas to determine the dollar value of a person’s life. Or rather, as a consultant for liable parties and their insurance companies, he works to push that value down as far as it can go.
A former math prodigy, Mitch retreated from the field when his proposed proof for the Riemann hypothesis fell apart upon peer review. (One of the great unsolved problems in mathematic theory, the Riemann hypothesis has to do with predicting the distribution of prime numbers; honestly, see the play if you want to know more, as Mitch explains it better than I ever could.) Now he tries to minimize the value of dead people’s lives—much to the discomfort of his cousin Ivan (Guy Wicke), a minor-league ballplayer who’s decided to seek financial stability by joining Mitch’s team.
Guy Wicke and Joel Ewing in Life On Paper
Mitch’s latest job, and Ivan’s first, takes them to the small (and fictional) town of Lansingville, Wisconsin. Hank Baylor, a Lansingville lifer, was one of 80-some people killed in a plane crash caused, everyone agrees, by the airline skipping routine maintenance checks. Baylor was also, it turns out, a billionaire investor and a total mensch who spread his wealth far and wide, especially in his hometown.
Which brings us to Mitch’s self-appointed adversary. Ida (Mary Williamson) is an actuary who works for Baylor’s savings and loan. Recently separated from her husband and a little adrift herself, Ida makes it her mission to persuade Mitch to abandon his. (Yes, the man who had such a positive effect on the lives in this small town ran a savings and loan. The It’s a Wonderful Life feels are so thick you almost expect a bell to ring every time Mitch has a change of heart.)
Josh Odor and Mary Williamson in Life On Paper
If Lin’s story is a little schematic, it’s also wholly winning in Gus Menary’s beautifully acted production. (Josh Odor, as Ida’s estranged but affectionate husband, and Satya Jnani Chavez, as a hotel waitress who proves to be so much more than her day job, round out the excellent cast.)
Menary’s physical staging is a little clunkier than I’ve come to expect from Jackalope—expect lots of long, furniture-shuffling scene changes—but Ewing and Williamson so fully inhabit their all-too-relatable characters that you’ll forgive the traffic jams. A small-town story that also makes room for infinity, Life On Paper handily proves the futility of reducing lived experience to numbers on a spreadsheet.
Life On Paper
Jackalope Theatre at Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway). By Kenneth Lin. Directed by Gus Menary.
Cast: Joel Ewing (Mitch), Mary Williamson (Ida), Guy Wicke (Ivan), Josh Odor (Michael), Satya Jnani Chavez (Maggie).
Designers: Ryan Emens (scenic), Stefani Azores-Gococo (costumes), Claire Sangster (lighting), Mara Ishihara Zinky (props), Steve LaBedz (sound).
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission. Through June 22. Tickets ($5–$30) at jackalopetheatre.org.
Photographs by Joel Maisonet
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