James Ijames production

Mikaela Krim

Last Wednesday, Feb. 11, Villanova Theater began its run of “Michael & Edie,” the fictional story of two young adults finding themselves—and each other—amid the tumult of their individual lives. Written by Rachel Bonds, a Brown University graduate who currently lives in Brooklyn, “Michael & Edie” follows the story of a shy but passionate boy, Michael, who falls head over heels for the lonely girl who works at his new place of employment—a small and dysfunctional bookstore. The action takes place over the span of a few months, and explores the relationship between two people haunted by their own personal demons. 

The format of the play, however, is a-typical, and oftentimes the line between what’s being said and what’s being thought, what is happening and what has happened, is blurred. In the words of director James Ijames, “There’s quite a sense of magical realism in it. All sorts of things can happen, anything is possible in this world.”

This is Ijames’ first play with Villanova Theater. The director, who hails from a town just outside Charlotte, N.C., and has lived in Philadelphia since his graduate school days, was hired last spring. 

He has been working professionally as an actor, director and playwright in the area for the past nine years, and is excited for his Villanova debut. This production of “Michael & Edie” isn’t far from the other works in which he’s been involved, which often comprise similarly small casts (“Michael & Edie” employs a mere five actors) and cover content that has, as Ijames puts it, “scale in a different way” than say, sweeping musical epics.  

“Working with small casts is “kind of my preference,” Ijames said. “It’s intimate, you get to know everyone really well; it’s a community.” It helps that the director has an existing relationship with the production’s two stars, Mitchell Bloom and Sophia Barrett. 

Previously, Ijames and Bloom both worked on “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and the “Michael & Edie” actor went to Temple a few years after his director. Ijames knew Barrett simply from his time working in, and interviewing around, the Main Line. “I love them,” he said. “They’re smart, they’re super talented, and they’re playful—[a trait] that this play really requires.” 

Indeed, if one word were used to describe the tone of the production, it would be playful. Opening night saw a packed house and a highly responsive crowd. The laughter was ongoing, and you could tell that the audience was thoroughly engaged with the cast. 

Bloom plays a fun Michael—he’s amiable, amicable and adorable, seamlessly blending all the careful introspection of adulthood with the unrestrained imagination of youth. Barrett’s Edie is lovely, her guarded exterior clearly affected to hide the utter vulnerability of her internal conflict. 

The clash of their onstage personalities works exactly as it was intended. It creates a fun dichotomy that keeps the audience captive, precisely one of the things that Ijames loves so much about live performance. “You get this sort of instant gratification, of feeling, of response from the audience.”

Ijames has plenty of experience from which to speak about theater. He wrote his first play when he was 13, and always knew he would be somehow involved with the arts. Originally a music major at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he switched to theater upon realizing that it was something he could “formally study and actually make a career out of.” His first paid acting job was “7th Inning Stretch” with the Children’s Theater of Charlotte during college, and his first professional play in the area was “Voices Under Water” with Gas and Electric Arts. 

“It was about this couple…” Ijames recalls, “where the wife had inherited a house that was haunted, and I was the husband, and there was blood…I don’t remember exactly what it was about.

“I remember, there were showerheads all through the set, and the books were supposed to be dusty so they were all covered in baby powder, so then the water [would go off] and would mix with the baby powder…I mean, it was a strange play! I look back on it and I think, that was bizarre.”  

Since then Ijames has dabbled in almost every aspect of performance art—though acting is his favorite. 

“I love playwriting; I like having agency, and being able to say the things I feel emotionally. But I think acting is where my heart lies. I don’t have to think about it. It’s oftentimes difficult for me to get the energy to do [it], but it just comes very naturally.” 

 Ijames has actually won a number of awards for his performance work, including the 2011 F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Theatre Artist, and—the one for which he’s most proud—Outstanding Supporting Actor in a play for “Superior Donuts.” Regarding the latter, Ijames says he values most the experience. 

“The director and I have remained really good friends and collaborators since then. Winning the award was just icing on the cake. The cake was this experience that has galvanized my thinking about what kind of artist I wanted to be, what kind of art I wanted to make.

In “Michael & Edie,” the characters are going through similar life-changing experiences. The story bears many similarities to recent coming-of-age films like “500 Days of Summer” or Zach Braff’s “Garden State.” 

In fact, the hearts of “Garden State” and this play are strikingly similar, not least of all in the way that they poignantly meld innocent idealism with dark undertones of tragedy. They’re depressingly cute, or cutely depressing. 

“Michael & Edie” is stunning in the manner by which it pulls the viewers along on its emotional highs and lows, causing them to become unconsciously invested in the deeply turbulent lives of the title characters and their respective families.  Neither Michael’s nor Edie’s home lives are particularly satisfying, and the audience is made to consider how these broken pasts impact the way in which they communicate. 

Ijames concedes that the nature of familial relationships—especially between siblings—is a prominent theme, along with “that awkward young love.  

“We all experience [it] at a certain part when we’re not quite youth anymore but not fully adult yet—that place is where they are, that place where it’s your first apartment and you’re so excited you’re living on your own…but it’s a really bad apartment.”

“It’s that place in your life when you’re moving past being a youth to being an adult and everything feels larger than it actually is,” Ijames said. “Now, we go, ‘wow that was actually an amazing moment, that was an amazing time. 

There were a lot of parts of it that were difficult, but I’m glad I went through it.’” 

Truly, the period in life that the play strives to emulate is difficult to pin down with words. “It’s not adolescence,” Ijames muses, “it’s beyond adolescence. No one has even bothered to name it. It’s that phase when you’re trying to fall in love because that’s what you’ve been taught all your life that you’re supposed to do. But it’s a lot more difficult than that.”

With a choppy, abbreviated dialogue and frequent (intentionally) awkward pauses, “Michael & Edie” attempts to recreate stylistically that sense of hesitation and apprehension. The long-winded, fancifully idealized passages that Michael creates about Edie in his head are delivered in sharp contrast to the abruptness of their actual conversations, which occur over re-shelving of books and assessment of inventory. 

These characters’ resistance to human connection stem from their fractured pasts, explanations of which are delivered inferentially in fragments. The mostly acoustic soundtrack and a recurring cold-weather motif create an atmosphere of frigidity, and establish the bookstore—and the title characters’ relationship—as a small, hot ember burning amidst the tempest.  

As the optimistic and ever-smiling character Ben, Kyle Fennie is an absolute delight, and, despite having limited lines, is one of the standouts among a very solid cast. 

Each time that Fennie walks on stage, the mood in the room brightens. As the buoyant and cheerful source of support for multiple characters, he offers a contrast to the majority of the production’s more subdued tone. 

But not all of Michael’s and Edie’s conversations are restrained. As the play progresses, they open up more and more, and the audience is invited to witness the dynamism of both characters. In fact, one of their most talkative scenes is one of the best—and one of Director Ijames’ favorites.  “There’s a scene where they’re talking about a New Year’s Eve party that I love,” he remarks fondly. And, “there are these scenes that have to do with a bathtub—those are good.” 

The bathtub scenes will certainly stick with audiences members long after the play has ended, and call upon what Ijames thinks is the most important message of “Michael and Edie:” “To always reach out to people,” he said. Even when it’s hard, and you feel like you can’t, always try to connect with people. That’s important.” 

Considering these types of theatrical implications is something that Ijames does not only in a performance setting. As a staff member at Villanova, he also teaches two classes—a Scene Study class for undergraduate theater minors and Collaborative Theater for graduate students. The graduate class involves creating theater without a script, through “exercises and ensemble-building.” It’s highly difficult, Ijames says, but “really fun, playing with the imagination, letting it fly.”

This kind of improvisational artistry is not necessarily commonplace at Villanova, where it’s no secret that the arts are far from given top billing. 

However, Ijames says he gets “the sense that the students take it upon themselves to make these opportunities.” To the young director, that’s really important. “Any arts programming that’s going to happen through the institution, the institution will start to recognize and sew into what the students are already making. I feel like, ‘if you build it they well come.’”

He cites the student-run orchestra on campus and the Villanova Student Theater as prime examples. 

“If the students continue to be art-making vehicles, where [they themselves] own it, that’s really beautiful. Because when you get out into the world, that’s how you have to do it.” 

In “Michael & Edie,” the characters have their own experiences with self-creation, and through their interactions with one another, come to know themselves a little better. 

After a lively first act, the play’s ending comes as abrupt and slightly jarring—but this in itself is a commentary on the nature of human life. 

Reality is far from subject to the whims of our inner fantasies, and the endings aren’t always happy. Yet there’s something reassuringly pure in the imperfection of humanity. 

In learning to embrace this imperfection, we allow ourselves a deeper connection with the rest of humanity, and with the utmost essence of ourselves.  

“Michael & Edie” will run until this Sunday, Feb. 22 in Vasey Theater. Tickets can be purchased in the box office or online, and discounts are offered for seniors, students, M.A. in Theatre alumni and groups.