“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” wrote Emily Dickinson. She might have been talking about how the mind tries to steady itself in the wake of a traumatic experience. Humans have many ways of doing this, and Rachel Bonds looks at one of them in her insightful yet perplexing new play, Jonah, directed by Danya Taymor and running at the Laura Pels Theatre.
We meet young Black high schooler Ana (Gabby Beans) and her white classmate Jonah (Hagan Oliveras) as they flirt outside the dorm of the boarding school they both attend. Wearing sweats and hoodies (teen-appropriate costumes by Kaye Voyce), they season their conversation with shy smiles, embarrassing questions, and the undulating rhythms of teenage upspeak. Then something strange happens: Jonah vanishes from her life, and suddenly we find her in a bedroom in Detroit where her creepy white stepbrother Danny (Samuel H. Levine) lurks around her door.
Details about Ana’s family come sporadically into view as we jump back and forth over the years and into a series of other bedrooms — one in a college dorm and another at a remote writers’ retreat, where she is romantically pursued by awkward, lovelorn Steven (a hilarious John Zdrojeski). Only after the persistent Steven wins over Ana’s trust do we learn the truth about her past and the identity of Jonah.
Along with the sense of mystery that Bonds and Taymor infuse into the story, we’re shown how traumatic events need not necessarily be physically violent to be devastating. While the play is steeped in sexual scenes and innuendo, Bonds looks at trauma from the perspective of a woman who allows things to happen to her because of a learned powerlessness. In Ana’s case, her stepbrother’s advances and their first sexual encounter seem to be “consensual,” but are they?
Bonds’s story raises provocative questions like that as we piece together Ana’s life and try to understand the experiences that have caused her to isolate herself and find self-preservation in her writing. But as we put the puzzle together, the play misses opportunities to explore crucial themes, such as how living solely among needy, domineering white men has impacted Ana’s sense of self and her choices in romantic partners. The play’s racial dynamics beg for interrogation yet get almost none.
It’s one of the frustrating aspects of this choppy production, which at least elicits terrific performances from the cast. Beans does a phenomenal job transforming from the free-spirited, innocent-acting Ana to the reserved, isolated Ana of later years. Oliveras too is charming as the teenage boyfriend who knows exactly what to say and how to behave to make Ana feel comfortable about having sex for the first time. Levine is good at getting us to loathe his manipulative personality as he quietly seduces his stepsister and maintains control over her even when he is no longer physically present. And Zdrojeski adds some much-needed levity to the play as the bumbling Steven, who, despite having some of the funniest lines, weirds us out with his obsession for Ana.
It’s too bad that the performances sometimes get lost in a play that seems cleverer than it is. For an astute observer, the revelation surrounding Jonah will come as no surprise. Without giving too much away, Wilson Chin’s mostly static bedroom set and Amith Chandrashaker special-effects lighting create a couple of dreamlike effects that clue us into who Jonah might be (Kate Marvin’s sound design heightens the strangeness of the scene). It sets us up for Ana’s explanation of who he is in a long final scene that not only feels unnecessary but that also dilutes the play’s impact. Sometimes mysteries are best left unsolved.