The Oberlin Review

“The Book of Jessica” Showcases Refreshing Look at College Years

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Early this semester, College senior Jessica Toltzis and sophomore Casey Labbate reached out to the Athletics department with a perfectly normal request: a working treadmill, for a one-woman show.

“I don’t know of any other show in America where there’s a person running on a treadmill,” Toltzis said.

Toltzis’ senior capstone show — The Book of Jessica — is not your typical Americana. The play was heavily influenced by her desire to fuse American theater with some of the more avant-garde drama she saw during a semester abroad in Russia.

“[In] one show [I] saw, they had hundreds of matchboxes falling from the ceiling,” Toltzis said. “I was like, ‘Wow, we don’t do that.’ We do kitchen-sink dramas like [ones written by] Tennessee Williams, where the focus is the language as opposed to the image, and I feel like European theater is very much about the image and what the images have to do with the story you’re telling.”

The story Toltzis tells is a familiar yet intriguing one — a chronicle of the ups and downs of her past four years at Oberlin, her discovery of identity therein, and the self-realization she knows is still to come.

“She was taking a class on the Book of Job, and she decided she wanted to write this play comparing her four years in college to the Book of Job,” Stage Manager Labbate said.

Toltzis messaged Labbate last year asking if she’d be interested in stage managing the show. This past Winter Term, Toltzis wrote a full draft, and from there, the two began production.

“[In the first few rehearsals] she would read it out loud, and then I would say something, and then she’d go, ‘oh, oh, oh,’ and then she would just shoo me and rewrite it,” Labbate said of the initial production process.

Since Toltzis wrote, directed, and stars in The Book of Jessica, Labbate adopted the role of Toltzis’ “eyes and ears” when she was onstage. Given that they were both rehearsing this show while working in the mainstage production of Angels in America, Labbate added that it’s been a hectic semester for the two, but that it’s been a good experience. For Toltzis, taking on several roles within the process of developing The Book of Jessica came with challenges of its own.

“As a senior, I [wanted] my capstone to be something challenging and difficult,” Toltzis said. “I [wanted] to write, act in it, direct in it, and that also brought so many challenges that I had no idea would even occur.”

Toltzis’ dedication and willingness to challenge herself allowed for a truly unique space to build a show.

“It was super different from any rehearsal process I’ve ever had, [since] the cast is one person, so it’s been super intimate and cool,” said College first-year and the third member of their tiny team, Anna Aubry-Heubert.

Aubry-Heubert appears sporadically onstage throughout the play to hand Toltzis props, clean up, and keep the action running.

“I’m responsible for providing props and helping the storyline along by coming onstage at different moments,” Aubry-Heubert explained. “My role is kind of random. There are moments that I participate, but I’m not really there.”

Aubry-Heubert met Toltzis in their improv group, where they realized that having Aubry-Heubert help with the tech process for The Book of Jessica would aid in her theater major technical requirements while simultaneously participating in a friend’s project.

“It’s been really interesting being a part of it on the technical side of the team, but also being her friend and seeing it come along through all its different stages of writing,” Aubry-Heubert said.

It’s clear that Toltzis’ team members are happy to work with her.

“Jess is a very charismatic and enjoyable person to be around, so I’ve always been telling her, ‘Even if the script is terrible, even if the show is pointless, just watching you hang out for 30 minutes is a joy,’” Labbate said. “Watching her in tech has been incredible. She’s like a puppy, running around like ‘Yes, that’s what I want.’”

The show runs today and tomorrow at 8 p.m. in Wilder Main, with a running time of 25 minutes. Tickets are $5.

“It’s a look into Jessica’s mind — and I think it’s a really lovely place to be,” Labbate said of the show.

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