Within the first 10 or 15 minutes of Kutumba Theatre Project’s “Julie Johnson,” you forget all about the cobbled-together set and the now-where-exactly-are-we nature of the Galleria Studio Theatre, and you focus on the two women at the center of the dramedy.
That has much to do with the precise, torpor-versus-tension direction of Kutumba founder Kim Ehly, as well as the talent and chemistry of the two leads: Valentina Izarra, as Hoboken, NJ., housewife Julie Johnson; and Casey Dressler, as her best friend, Claire.
Set in 1989, the play by Wendy Hammond is about Julie’s amazing journey from abuse and powerlessness to reordering her life and finding her true identity. Yes, her sexuality is part of it, as the friendship tentatively grows into much more as the two women team up after leaving their cop husbands.
That friendship sustains Julie. She certainly doesn’t get many props from her high-school age daughters. “It’s your own fault he’s hitting on you,” screams Lisa, played by Skylar Voelker.
When Julie thinks about job hunting, her other daughter, Frankie, played by Julianna Rector, says, “You don’t know how to do nothing.”
Maybe she doesn’t. But testy teens aside, Julie is brave and begins her transformation by taking classes with a mentor/tutor named Mr. Miranda, played by Doug Wetzel. Both women face the homophobia of their blue-collar surroundings circa the late 1980s and early ’90s, as well as their own self-doubt and inner prejudices.
So there’s the drama. Where’s the comedy? That’s tricky to answer. The humor seems to pop up out of nothing, emerging from the play’s ether in surprising ways that come off as almost accidental. It’s in Claire’s snappy side eyes or Julie’s irreducibly raw nerve of a persona (she’ll make you wince every time she blurts out her most innermost thoughts and feelings).
Then there’s the ’80s soundtrack, which gives many of the jokes a little flourish and punctuation. The likes of Debbie Gibson, Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Heart, Pat Benatar and Melissa Etheridge give the black-out transitions a little smoothing over (although a few could be a tad quicker). And that Aqua Net-ed hair, that Day-Glo fashion — that’s a couple of big laughs right there.
OK, lesbian angle notwithstanding, we’ve seen this empowerment journey before. While the story is somewhat predictable, the trip is still extremely engaging (for 75 minutes with a 15-minute intermission), and it’s all about the interplay between Julie and Claire.
IF YOU GO:
When: Through Feb. 9; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Galleria Studio Theatre (inside the Galleria mall and also the home of Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre), 2542B E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-646-1000 or BrownPaperTickets.com/event/511855.