“The Forest” is a sorrowful, humorous play about life changes

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Jenny O'Hara in a living room that looks like a forest
'The Forest' Jenny O'Hara photo by AndreaPhox.com

The physical production rises to NJ Rep’s usual level of brilliance

Dana Brooke and Christopher Grant.on stage performing in the Forest
‘The Forest’ (L) Dana Brooke and (R) Christopher Grant photo by AndreaPhox.com

The New Jersey Repertory Company has never been one to shy away from plays that tackle serious subjects yet draw humor from them. One such play is their latest offering, The Forest, now playing at their theatre in Long Branch.

Playwright Lia Romeo focuses her work on a problem facing more and more families — that of a once-active elder whose mental faculties are starting to fail. The anguish of family members forced helplessly to watch the decline of a loved one is matched by the self-awareness of that loved one that not only are they declining but that the process is irreversible. Yet even from that anguish and self-awareness, there are glimmers of old personality traits and memories that hold out the illusory possibility that maybe in this one case, the inevitable decline can be halted, even reversed.

The play focuses on Pam (Jenny O’Hara), a former university professor whose awareness is flickering through the decades, causing her to believe she is at different stages of her life and confused by her present surroundings. Her daughter, Juliet (Dana Brooke), a high school teacher, is not only having to handle her mother’s deteriorating state but also a very messy divorce. To act as a caretaker for Pam, Juliet hires Miguel (Armando Acevedo), a single dad and former actor. On top of all this, Juliet is mentoring a gifted student, Andrew (Christopher Grant), who is torn between nurturing his gifts at a prestigious college and what he sees as abandoning his family by moving away to school.

In one scene, Pam tells Andrew about the metaphor of the forest in fairy tales. It is a place of self-revelation and change, and no one who goes in ever comes out the same. In this play, all four of the characters enter their own private forests, and their lives and their self-images change dramatically, for better or for worse.

Jenny O'Hara and Dana Brooke sitting at a table in a bar
‘The Forest’ (L) Jenny O’Hara and (R) Dana Brooke photo by AndreaPhox.com

The cast, directed by NJ Rep’s Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, gives memorable performances. In particular, Jenny O’Hara comes very close to stealing the show with her comedic sensibilities and her marvelously expressive face.

Ms. O’Hara handles her character’s lightning-quick changes of mood and sense of place and time seamlessly, giving us a rich portrait of a woman whose still-sharp-in-many-ways mind is starting to fail her. 

The physical production rises to NJ Rep’s usual level of brilliance. There is, in particular, an acoustic effect that is nothing short of delightful, appropriate, and spectacularly unexpected about which I cannot say more without spoiling one of the play’s surprises.

While at times the dialog is too perfectly phrased to sound like real-life speech, this does not majorly detract from the excellence of The Forest. This is a play that will resonate with its audiences on many levels, and it takes a look both serious and humorous at a situation that is becoming more and more common. I recommend making the trip to Long Branch to get lost in The Forest before its all-too-brief run ends.

The Forest is presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at their theatre at 179 Broadway in Long Branch through April 10th. For more information or for tickets, go to their website at njrep.org or call 732-229-3166.

Proof of vaccination must be shown to enter the building, and masks must be worn at all times while inside the building.