Reflect Your Elders: Joseph?s a mirror on Rose?s prejudices.

As written, Neglect is a quick, tough play that ends on a gut-punch to our collective moral center. I won’t say how that happens, but some clean, unfussy work by the design team (Brian S. Allard on lighting and Domenic A. Creswa on sound) ensures that Journeyman’s staging nails the all-important climax. The events leading up to that moment, however, miss the mark in a strangely consistent way, because director Jessie R. Gallogly rarely varies the evening’s pace or tone. Granted, it’s a short evening (just 65 minutes without an intermission) but because the play’s comic moments, wistful passages, and violent turns are so flatly asserted, they achieve uniform weight—and leach the production of volatility. A shame, because a sense of discomfiture is crucial to Sharyn Rothstein’s tale of Rose (Cynthia Costa Rollins), an elderly, frightened woman living alone during the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed hundreds. When Rose grudgingly allows her neighbor Joseph (James J. Johnson) into her apartment, it’s meant to charge the situation with potential energy, a sense that anything could happen. That energy, and that sense, never materialize. Johnson tries to get us to feel the heat and humidity, at least, by constantly—and a bit distractingly—wiping his pate and fanning himself. (A combination of sound and lighting cues—the gurgling wheeze of an on-the-fritz air conditioner and the flicker of light that occurs as it powers up—does a more efficient job of conveying the stultifying heat of the play’s setting.) For the first 45 minutes or so, both performers are overmatched by the demands of Rothstein’s discursive, elliptical script. Rollins seems to be standing outside her character, and Johnson’s squirrelly, eyes-darting performance allows us to draw too clear a bead on Joseph and his motivations earlier than we should. Once the actors find their characters (which happens right around the time the conflict between Rose and Joseph becomes physical), Neglect begins to gain the focus and drive it has lacked, and the ending lands with surprising power. Surprising, because dramatically, the ending really shouldn’t work. I’ll be careful here, but briefly: Rothstein seems to offer up Rose’s experience with Joseph as an explanation for a crucial action Rose takes at the very end of the play. But if we’re to accept that, the play must convince us that what’s happened to Rose has changed her in some way, not simply reinforced her preconceptions; in the end, that’s something Neglect neglects to do.