Ever since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross unveiled her Five Stages of Grief, one expects the bereft to trundle in an orderly fashion from one step to the next. But the grieving parents in Kara Lee Corthron’s Julius by Design, produced by the Fulcrum at the Access Theater, skip and skitter among the stages as if playing a glum round of hopscotch. As they near the seven-year anniversary of their son Julius’s murder, Jo (Suzzanne Douglas) and Laurel (Mike Hodge) alternate between denial, anger, and acceptance, though they most often settle on depression.
The script’s structure, centered on holidays, feels pat, and a portion of Corthron’s writing, as directed by Debbie Saivetz, sounds artificial, like when Jo anticipates a Thanksgiving dinner, full of conversation and perhaps even a joke: “It won’t be too controversial and certainly not ethnically inappropriate. It will be witty. Like the British.” This sometimes stiltedness seems especially odd, since Corthron’s characters place a premium on diction. Laurel, a crossword enthusiast, is ever searching for the right word, while Jo assigns letter grades to each missive a pen pal sends. When Jo strikes up a correspondence with Ethan (Johnny Ramey), her son’s killer, she critiques his writing. “Simple honesty is always interesting,” she tells him.
But if Corthron’s own language is occasionally awkward, her dedication to revealing emotional states as forthrightly as she can shines through in nearly every scene. Her compassion for her characters is also apparent, especially for Jo, though she even bestows benevolence on Ethan and George (Crystal Finn), a gauche saleswoman.
In some of George’s speeches and in the acerbic comments of Max (Curran Connor), another bereaved parent, you sense Corthron capable of a play more comic and more cruel than this one. But she focuses her attention instead on Jo and Laurel’s enduring relationship, the undercurrent of love that sustains them even as they squabble. As acted by the fine Douglas and Hodge, this couple may never make it through all of Kübler-Ross’s stages, but they’re doing just fine on the theatrical one.