What’s a woman to do when the man who was supposed to meet her at the stagecoach station in a Kansas cattle town leaves her languishing there for two days?
Who can Natalie turn to for a glass of cool water to soothe her parched throat, a full tub to soak off the trail dust and a job so she can put food on the table?
Why Jenny’s House of Joy, of course.
Now, many a man in Baxter Springs during the year of our Lord 1871 turned to Jenny’s establishment for a few moments of comfort and a couple seconds of joy, but no self-respecting woman would set foot in the place. It is, after all, the town’s only whorehouse.
“Jenny’s House of Joy,” a two-act comedy by Canadian playwright Norm Foster, is where Natalie lands after the man she believed would rescue her from an abusive marriage disappears before she lays eyes on him.
Although Foster is considered to be the Neil Simon of Canada, his work is not well-known in the United States.
Winterport Open Stage is premiering this show in Maine.
The play stars five women — Jenny Hart as the proprietor Jenny, Christie Robinson as Natalie, Brianne Beck as Anita, Emily Gammon as Frances and Kim Pitula as Clara, the “respectable” woman in the show.
This is the second spring in a row Dominick Varney has directed an all-female cast for the Winterport theater company. Last year, he staged “Shakers,” a comedy set in an English pub. Hart, Gammon and Beck were three-quarters of that cast.
Although “Shakers” had more meat on its bones than “Jenny’s House of Joy” does, Varney knows women’s relationships. He either lets his actresses experiment and explore their characters’ relationships, picking and choosing what works best, or the director has a far better understanding of how women live with each other than any other guy on the planet.
Varney pushes his cast past stereotypes to give each character more depth than the playwright gave them.
The actresses wring every ounce of comedy from their lines, making them seem like conversation rather than one-liners. They also create a tight ensemble, a feat that’s sometimes difficult for nonprofessionals to pull off.
Longtime fans of the community theater company’s work will be delighted by Pitula’s return to the stage after a 10-year absence. Her turn as a gun-toting wife upset at her husband’s dalliances is hysterical.
The other cast members go beyond the cursory portrayals of “hookers with hearts of gold.” The actresses create four distinct individuals, each with their own reasons for living and working at Jenny’s.
Gammon and Beck shine as the cynical, whiskey-drinking Frances and the bookworm Anita, who manages to read while servicing the customers. While Hart’s and Robinson’s roles are not as well-written, they too give better performances than the script probably deserves.
“Jenny’s House of Joy” is hardly a realistic depiction of prostitutes in the Old West. It is light and fluffy fare designed to tickle the funny bone for a couple of hours. The high quality set, props and costumes make the audience believe it’s traveled nearly 140 years back in time.
While Winterport Open Stage certainly is capable of tackling more serious cuisine, it continues to allow some of the best local talent an opportunity to shine.
The theater company also never fails to send theatergoers out the door feeling grateful they made the trek to Winterport.