Jennifer Who Is Leaving
Floyd King (Joey) and Kimberly Gilbert (Jennifer) in Jennifer Who Is Leaving at Round House Theatre; Credit: Margot Schulman

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Only one of the three women of different generations in playwright and director Morgan Gould’s bitterly funny Jennifer Who Is Leaving is a professional caregiver. That would be Kimberly Gilbert’s Jennifer, an overwhelmed and underappreciated long-term care nurse who’s killing time in a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts far outside of Boston until a tow truck can make its way through the snow to take her and her charge—the bellicose and wheelchair-bound Joey—back to his assisted-living facility. At that point, presumably, she’ll clock out for a temporary respite from cleaning up Joey’s nonmetaphorical shit and head home to clean up her husband’s. 

It’s this expected but unrewarded—and unending—physical and emotional labor that is the subject of Gould’s hilarious but harrowing one-act. That unacknowledged burden is also the commonality Jennifer finds with Nancy Robinette’s Nan, who spends a maddening portion of her 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift at the shop talking her retired husband through basic household tasks by phone. (You’d think this woman deserves a few minutes of blessed silence, but as she points out, she’s not allowed to turn off the playlist of ’80s and ’90s adult contemporary hits that cycles all through the night.) Annie Fang’s Lili is a high schooler working at Dunkin’ to save up for college expenses, but already the expectations of her domineering father have begun to condition her to the habit of putting her own pursuits and desires second to those of a man in her life.

The way Jennifer and Nan’s unseen but evidently clueless husbands have worn down their spouses’ emotional reserves through decades of neglect is a damning enough verdict on mankind. But Gould stacks the deck to make Floyd King’s Joey a particularly unappealing specimen, forever complaining that his free doughnuts taste like shit and reflexively shouting “Prove it!” whenever one of the women catches him in an obvious lie. Any depths of suffering that might explain why Joey—a wizened pensioner with the emotional comportment of a 6-year-old—treats Jennifer with such casual cruelty go unexplored in the 85-minute play. Gould’s subject is the agony within Jennifer that Nan recognizes and tries, within her heartbreakingly limited means, to assuage. At one point she offers to fix Jennifer a long-discontinued novelty coffee drink, now available only to those who “know the right people.”

Gilbert and Robinette are both reliably superb performers, but this play is nothing if not a warning against failing to recognize the contributions women make just because they make them all the time. There’s something deeply moving about seeing both actors play at least somewhat against type, with Robinette serving up the kind of determined buoyancy directors have often asked Gilbert to supply, while Gilbert channels the exhaustion and bone-deep rage of a woman who hasn’t had a day to herself in decades. When she says, “I’ll die furious,” you hope she’s wrong. And fear she’s right.

Jennifer Who Is Leaving, written and directed by Morgan Gould, runs through May 7 at Round House Theatre. $46–$101.