“When January Feels Like Summer” at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and Women’s Project Theater (Closed Sunday October 26, 2014)

Written by Cori Thomas
Directed by Daniella Topol
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1

It seems everything in Cori Thomas’s “When January Feels Like Summer” is out of synch, out of time, somehow oddly akilter and often akimbo. The weather is not seasonal. Relationships are not functioning within desired limits. Gender shakes itself out of traditional norms. Privilege separates individuals and poorly tolerates all challenges to status. Things need to be rearranged, reordered, reclaimed, and redeemed – the perfect context for propitiating Ganesha the Hindu god of wisdom and learning who removes all obstacles to success.

Indeed this lovable and mischievous deity’s image is the only constant on Jason Simms’ functional set and serves as a metaphor for the systemic change needed in the lives of the characters that meet Ganesh’s gaze. Nirmala (played with palpable vulnerability by Mahira Kakkar) has struggled for three years to manage her husband’s deli while he lingers on life support after being shot. She has also struggled to remove that life support from the man who brought her from India after marrying her then never “touched her” again choosing pornography over intimacy with his wife. Nirmala needs a Ganesha intervention.

Nirmala lives with her brother Ishan who has quit his job to continue the process of male to female gender reassignment and who desperately needs the money Nirmala would receive from her husband’s life insurance settlement to complete his reassignment surgery if only she would remove him from life support. Debargo Sanyal brings authenticity, sensitivity, and impetuous honesty to his dual roles of Ishan (male) and Indira (female). Ms. Kakkar and Mr. Sanyal bring tender believability to a brother and sister deeply searching for unconditional and non-judgmental love in the midst of the barrenness of their personal and urban landscape. Nirmala and Indira need a Ganesha intervention.

Joe (Dion Graham) is a New York Sanitation worker who also needs an intervention: like Nirmala, he has lived a loveless life and needs a change. Dion Graham’s Joe is a solid triumphant character who serves as confessor to Nirmala and Ishan and a catalyst for redemption. Mr. Graham has the ability to convey more with expression and movement than many actors struggle to convey with dialogue. He is a joy to watch command a stage. Joe also serves as a mentor to Devaun and Jeron – also in need of a Ganesha makeover.

Devaun and Jeron operate within what they understand to be acceptable norms for urban young men: they have jobs, they are heterosexual; they are tolerant of others unless what might be aberrant in others fails to respect their boundaries and emerging sensibilities. What Devaun (Maurice Williams) lacks in smart phone and verbal skills he makes up for in his ability to “get with” women (young, old, and in-between) and his seemingly flawless ability to intuit when danger lurks and when unconditional love beckons. Jeron (Carter Redwood) is Devaun’s devoted side-kick who encourages his friend and does his very best to tweak Devaun’s reach for success. Mr. Williams and Mr. Redwood are profoundly skilled young actors who bring a level of maturity to their craft well beyond their years.

Ms. Thomas takes too long to establish the importance of Devaun and Jeron to the progression of the play’s action and some characterizations in the play fall prey to stereotypes. Despite these concerns, “When January Feels Like Summer” is an endearing and powerful examination of the power of unconditional love.

The deep longings of all of these characters to find fulfillment and acceptance and love collide in subway and deli and living rooms and bedrooms and all obstacles are overcome. And like Ganesha, each character has life breathed into him or her again. As Indira shares with her new love interest Devaun, “Ganesha was originally a real boy. But then by mistake his head was cut off and the only replacement head was an elephant’s. It was attached, life was breathed into him again and after overcoming this huge obstacle, everyone lived happily ever after.” January can indeed feel like summer.

Under Daniella Topol’s careful direction, the ensemble cast of “When January Feels Like Summer” confirm that living happily ever after is not just fable: they confirm that such an idyllic state can be the reality upon which all fairy tales are based.