By: Darryl Reilly
“The past and the present. But everything is slippery.” So, states playwright Rachel Bonds in the program note about her circuitous character study, Jonah; it is indeed slippery. Structured as non-linear short scenes with scant background information until its conclusion, we get a portrait of a woman from a dysfunctional upbringing with a wounded psyche who triumphs over adversity, including physical and sexual abuse. Ms. Bonds is an accomplished writer who crafts zesty dialogue. However, Bonds is beholden to her agenda of vagueness; there is a strategic lack of exposition or description resulting in incoherence at times. The flashy production emphasizes the work’s concerns with technique and presumed importance over simple storytelling.
Over the span of over 20 years, the life of the Michigan native Ana is depicted. As a teenager, her poor single mother married a solvent but violent man with a troubled son. After Ana’s mother dies of breast cancer, her stepfather makes sexual advances. He is stopped by his son; Ana and her stepbrother flee the house. They scrounge around as homeless, and their relationship becomes too close. Ana focuses on studying and is accepted to an exclusive boarding school, then she is at college, and finally is a resident at a writer’s colony where we learn that she wrote a bestselling memoir. The subsidiary character of Jonah is a Citizen Kane-style motif harkening to a happy period in Ana’s life. Bond’s treatment of this wrenching material is fitfully compelling; it does succeed as a showcase for its gifted cast.
The captivating Gabby Beans is heartbreaking as Ana. With her lithe physicality, expressive voice and beaming eyes, Ms. Beans’ magnetic performance is Jonah’s centerpiece. Soulful Samuel H. Levine forcefully conveys all of the stepbrother’s anguish, rage and despair, particularly when slitting his wrist with the shard of a vase he has smashed. Sunny and charming Hagan Oliveras is winning as the nerdy virgin college freshman Jonah. Veering from soft spoken to emotive, the personable John Zdrojeski offers a tender and comic portrayal of a neurotic Ex-Mormon Ana encounters.
Director Danya Taymor’s swift physical staging injects momentum while fulfilling Bonds’ ambiguous vision. Scenic designer Wilson Chin’s vast bedroom and living room setting artfully captures the piece’s conceit of shifting times and places. Amith Chandrashaker’s hyperbolic lighting design and Kate Marvin’s blaring sound design are each skillfully and purposefully obtrusive. Costume designer Kaye Voyce achieves pleasing realism for the characters’ looks. Tilly Evans-Krueger’s movement direction and Ann James’ intimacy direction render the fight and sex sequences with authenticity and taste.
Jonah’s final scenes are affective, but the play is ultimately more of an exercise rather than a satisfying theatrical experience.
Jonah (through March 10, 2024)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission