In Roundabout Theatre Company’s world premiere of Jonah, playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center, playwright Rachel Bonds explores sex, violence, religion, and survival in one young woman’s coming-of-age story, through a “slippery” blend of reality and fantasy. Directed by Danya Taymor with a seamless balance of action and psychology, humor and trauma, the provocative non-linear narrative takes us into the mind and heart of a budding writer, as she navigates the twists and turns of human connection, love, and trust, and an abusive childhood that haunts her, and will keep you guessing till the end.
The intimate tale is presented as a series of key episodes in the life and inter-relationships of Ana, from ages sixteen to 40, with three male characters (and the voice of her stepfather) that define her journey through a sequence of settings, from just outside her boarding school to her bedrooms there, in her family’s house, her college dorm, and at a remote writers’ residency. It should be noted that the show contains haze effects and flashing lights, graphic language, and acts of simulated sex (without nudity; intimacy direction by Ann James), bloody violence and self-harm that could be a trigger for some viewers but are integral to the understanding and evolution of the protagonist.
In her starring role as Ana, Gabby Beans delivers an award-worthy tour-de-force performance that embodies the pain, damage, desires, and hope of her character with three-dimensional depth and compelling empathy, brilliantly capturing her transformation from teen to adult, her emotional and psychological struggles and revelations, and the irrepressible humanity and resiliency that keeps us engaged and rooting for her. Her spot-on portrayal of the teenage Ana is simultaneously headstrong, defensive, and funny, as she talks in a convincingly youthful voice and speech pattern, adopts the accents of the figures she humorously imitates in her conversations (voice and text coaching by Gigi Buffington), actively moves back and forth across the stage with high energy (movement by Tilly Evans-Krueger), and bonds with the sweet, innocent, and vulnerable Jonah – also played to perfection by the irresistible Hagan Oliveras – who is clearly smitten with her, cares deeply about her, and is constantly checking to make sure she’s okay.
Their stellar characterizations are matched by Samuel H. Levine as Ana’s extremely troubled, victimized, and possessive stepbrother Danny, who appears from the ages of seventeen through his early twenties, repeatedly beaten and bloodied by his brutal father, never reporting the ongoing abuse for fear of being separated from his violated sister in foster care, finding commonality and solace with her, but, unlike her, unable to move on from the damage; and by John Zdrojeski as the gentle Steven, a fellow writer in his late thirties/early forties at the mosquito-infested retreat in the woods, who goes to her room, brings food to the reclusive Ana, gets her help with the insect bites that cover his legs, compliments her on the “incredibly profound and exquisitely crafted” book she wrote, and exchanges personal questions and answers with her about childhood, writing, and religion (he was raised Mormon), his lingering shame about “sex stuff,” and their fantasies, with an unexpected ending that clarifies all that came before in her story.
Casual everyday costumes by Kaye Voyce, with hair and wig design by Tommy Kurzman, are well suited to the contemporary characters, their ages and situations. Wilson Chin’s stationary set consists of a central door in the back wall of the room, with lamps and a ceiling fan, a bed to the left, and a desk and chair to the right, which remains consistent in each segment, though represents the different times and places in Ana’s life and mind. The scenes are defined by shifts in lighting and the breaks between them signaled by forceful strobe effects and blackouts (lighting by Amith Chandrashaker), a disturbing, tense, and dissonant soundscape (sound by Kate Marvin), and illusions (by Morgan Auld) that inform the state of Ana’s emotions and experiences.
It all makes for an often dark and always intriguing work, interspersed with bits of humor to alleviate the profound gravity of the themes of loneliness, intimacy, and abuse, and a superb cast and direction that never cease to affect.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Jonah plays through Sunday, March 10, 2024, at Roundabout Theatre Company, performing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $86-138, including fees), call (212) 719-1300, or go online.