Review: Jackalope Theatre’s Life On Paper Asks What a Life Is Worth

Mary Williamson and Joel Ewing. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

If you were asked to put a dollar value on a human life, what you would say? You might say that it’s not something that you can quantify, that you can’t boil down a human life to dollars and cents. Well, for forensic economists, putting a dollar amount on human lives is their job when accidents occur that cause loss of life. They take into account everything: how old you were, how much money you made, any disabilities or less than healthy hobbies you had, investments you had made, anything that would affect how long you would have lived and how much money you could have hypothetically made in that period of time. As you can imagine, that might affect how you look at your own life and the lives of those around you–and make you focus more on what is profitable than on what makes you happy. That’s the case in Jackalope Theatre’s Life On Paper, a fascinating look at how having an outlook on life determined entirely by profits can lead to a cynical perspective.

Life On Paper, written by Kenneth Lin and directed by Gus Menary, centers around the death of billionaire Hank Baylor, caused by a plane crash, probably because the airline didn’t complete scheduled maintenance checks. The story follows Mitch Blume (played by Joel Ewing), a jaded forensic economist representing the airline that owned the plane that crashed; and Ida Watkins (Mary Williamson), an actuary who works for a savings and loan that was owned by Baylor. They begin as somewhat friendly competitors, and the ensuing evolution of their relationship is the driving force of the story. I really enjoyed Life On Paper‘s story, and in particular, its portrayal of the math that powers Mitch and Ida’s calculations. Math is something I rarely find interesting (I’m a political science major and a videogame reviewer), and even less do I find it fun. But the way Mitch goes about describing the way he sees math—and his obsession with prime numbers—kept me interested, and playwright Lin makes clear what he’s talking about, which in itself is a shining review for Life On Paper.

The story of Life On Paper is great, and the acting fully supports it. Every cast member—Mary Williamson, Joel Ewing, Guy Wicke, Satya Jnani Chavez, and Josh Odor—does a fantastic job of portraying their characters as flawed, sympathetic people. I loved watching Ida and Mitch’s relationship evolve, from somewhat friendly competition to something a bit stronger, although I won’t go into any more detail. In particular I really loved Chavez’s performance as Maggie, who for most of the play is merely a waiter that the rest of the cast infrequently interacts with, but she ends up performing an astounding musical number, which completely surprised and impressed me.

Life On Paper is a fascinating theater production that dumps a ton of mathematics jargon on the audience in a way that isn’t patronizing, and makes it interesting and understandable, along with a great story in which you see the organic evolution of its characters. You feel for these people, no matter if they’re going through a failure or a triumph. They’re portrayed incredibly well by everyone involved. So if you have an interest in how the value of a human life is quantified in dollar terms by those whose job this is (say lawyers, economists, actuaries and insurance people), along with a fascinating story of a man’s return from the brink, I’d highly suggest Life On Paper.

Life On Paper runs for 100 minutes with a 15-minute intermission and continues through June 22. Jackalope Theatre performs at Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 ($20 for seniors and students) and are available here.

James Brod
James Brod

James Brod recently graduated from Dominican University, with a degree in political science. Ironically, he had previously considered majoring in journalism, but didn’t want to write for a living. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? You can find him wandering the northwest suburbs, or on Twitter at @JamesBrod12.