As the son of two Catholic apostates, I've often blessed my parents for sparing me from a lot of bullshit. Altar service, youth groups, church retreats, and the troubling possibilities therein were never a part of my childhood, and for that I am grateful — but should I be? As civil society erodes and our culture turns a jaundiced eye toward any gathering of individuals unmitigated by a screen, it's hard not to feel a certain admiration for church organizations that provide in-person fellowship as an alternative to an atomized online existence, despite their well-documented flaws.
I thought about that as I watched Julia May Jonas's Your Own Personal Exegesis at LCT3. A slow-boil confession that gently but insistently pulls you into the deep end, it left me swimming in a pool of my own ambivalence.
It's set in 1996 at the [Redacted] Church of [Redacted], New Jersey, tantalizingly suggesting that the drama we are witnessing is based on true events (I have no idea whether the play is autobiographical or if Jonas is just a particularly wily storyteller). It's a wealthy liberal Protestant congregation — I'm guessing Lutheran, based on the basketball and Bach (excellent sound design by Stowe Nelson). Rev. Kat (Hannah Cabell) is the youth minister, organizing charity danceathons and directing religious plays like Summer of Love: The Story of David and Bathsheba, which resets a story from the Old Testament around the Vietnam War. Kat likes to remind everyone that she was a working actor before attending Harvard Divinity School.
Her clear favorite is Chris (Cole Doman), a handsome Lacrosse jock with a troubled home life. Chris is dating Addie (a slightly ethereal Mia Pak), who explores her eating disorder in quiet conspiracy with Beatrice (Annie Fang), the object of desire for the dorky and wholesome Brian (adorably earnest Savidu Geevaratne). Kat really seems to have it in for Beatrice, whose mother is the church organist. We wonder if some unseen adult drama is filtering down to the kids. Teenage hormones collide with the thwarted ambitions of an adult woman who should know better. Those who have read Jonas's debut novel, Vladímír, about a professor who lusts after a much younger male assistant, might have some sense of where the story is headed. And even if you haven't, the setting alone is enough to provoke our suspicions in 2022.
Personally, I wanted to give Rev. Kat the benefit of the doubt, and Hannah Cabell's sly performance allowed me to do so for an impressively long time (although, perhaps we are more conditioned to trust women in positions of authority over adolescents). Cabell's scenes with Doman buzz with unacknowledged tension, and we begin to suspect that his dopey dude-bro schtick is just the performance of a much more calculating player. Would we say the same thing if their genders were reversed? As Rev. Kat reminds us in a sudden and delightfully strange musical number (by Brian Cavanagh-Strong), "He's 18."
Ultimately, this is Beatrice's story, so everything is necessarily filtered through her perspective. Fang endows her with enough gawky intelligence to make her uncomfortably relatable — an adult time-traveler revisiting her adolescent body. She can see the dysfunction and hiding-in-plain-sight secrets of this tiny society, but she's also an active participant in it — one driven by teenage resentment that occasionally expresses itself through cruelty. No one comes out of Your Own Personal Exegesis looking like a saint.
In stolen glances, awkward salutations, and hugs that go on just a little too long, director Annie Tippe terraforms the delicate teenage ecosystem Beatrice and her fellow young Christians inhabit. The severe upholstery, wall-to-wall carpet, and drab brown screens of Brett J. Banakis's set place us firmly in a church while providing for multiple theatrical reveals: A series of tableaux from a Good Friday "cross carry" is a real highlight, made to look like Mannerist paintings under Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's brilliant lighting. Wendy Yang outfits the teens in cargo shorts and beaded necklaces, like rejects from an Abercrombie & Fitch jobs fair. We viewers also have a role: We are handed a church bulletin when we enter the theater that contains our lines for the call-and-response, which the audience stumbles through about as lifelessly as actual congregants.
In the end, it doesn't really matter if Your Own Personal Exegesis is based on real events or not. The fact that we can all imagine these things happening is enough. Jonas leaves us with a deep sense of survivor's guilt: Why do some poor choices become regrettable adolescent memories and others become life-ruining mistakes? The seemingly random nature of God's mercy (if such a thing exists) is awesome and terrifying. It's no shock that, rather than face it, so many have opted out entirely.