By Sarah Downs
Jonah, by Rachel Bonds, is an exciting, absorbing drama about a young woman navigating that difficult transition from teenager to independent adult, hampered by more than her fair share of difficulties. Brilliant, well structured, complex and verbally textured, it is the kind of play one can lose oneself in. And lose myself I did.
Jonah is the story of Ana, the focal point of three young men who don’t give her a moment’s peace. Jonah, Danny and Steven orbit her in a dance of relentless attention and constant need, badgering and even haunting her. They talk, but they don’t listen. When Ana says she doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to, you know that isn’t true. Like women throughout history Ana is expected to carry the weight of a man’s emotions, leaving no room for her own. She is to be the canvas on which his life is drawn. Neither mirror nor glass she is not to sparkle, only to absorb light. Ana pushes back again and again. She is just trying to enjoy her life, striving to do so on her own terms.
We first meet Ana as she is being pursued by Jonah (Hagan Oliveras) a fellow student at her boarding school. He is all puppy love and insecurity, which she keeps at bay with alluring insouciance, in the push me-pull you of young romance. Jonah is all over the place, simultaneously ruing his innocence and fearing his own passion, convinced that any sign of sexual desire is tantamount to assault. He “doesn’t want to be creepy” although in his repeated protestations of good will, he actually begins to come off as a little creepy. He’s so daffy, after a while you wonder if he is even real.
By contrast, Ana’s relationship with her step-brother Danny (Samuel H. Levine) brings you down to earth with a thud. With Danny, Ana is more emotionally intimate and far less safe. Talk about creepy. Bonded by a traumatic homelife, Ana and Danny have a complicated relationship, to say the least. The third man in Ana’s story, Steven (John Zdrojeski), whom she meets at a post-graduate artist’s colony, hews more to the Jonah template, although he is even more guilt-ridden and garrulous.
All of the actors are excellent. Oliveras colors Jonah’s intensity with sweetness and believable naivete. He and Ana also have great chemistry. As the smoldering enigma Danny, whose emotional embers may catch fire at any moment, Levine gives a visceral performance, crackling with incipient menace. Zdrojeski exudes an awkward charm as Steven. All arms and legs, he has a Jimmy Stewart charm about him in cadence and gesture. At times his hands just spring away from his body of their own accord. He has to gather his limbs back together to move on.
Playwright Rachel Bonds and director Danya Taymor are clearly of one mind. The action flows effortlessly page to stage, from the first moments through the surprising conclusion. Taymor has mined every beat to maximum effect neither rushing nor belaboring the timing. Note: Jonah is not for kids, as there are scenes of sexual intimacy, tastefully choreographed by intimacy coordinator Ann James, in a manner that renders this sensitive material organic, never gratuitous. Wilson Chin’s luscious, cream-colored set, under Amith Chandrashaker’s clear white lighting is at once monumental and transparent, a dynamic backdrop that can take center stage.
Above all, however, it is Gabby Beans in the central role of Ana who anchors this piece. Beans mesmerizes, in a remarkable, nuanced, magnetic performance. She is magic — entirely authentic and entirely new. Ana is a true heroine in the chaos of need around her. If anyone can wrest control of the emotional pen from the men who keep invading her space, she can. When she does, she will most assuredly draw her own glorious self-portrait. We hope.
Jonah, by Rachel Bonds, directed by Danya Taymor. With Gabby Beans, Samuel Henry Levine, Hagan Oliveras, John Zdrojeski.
Wilson Chin (Sets), Kaye Voyce (Costumes), Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting), Kate Marvin (Sound), Tommy Kurzman (Hair and Wig), Gigi Buffington (Voice and Text Coach), Morgan Auld (Illusions), Tilly Evans-Krueger (Movement), and Ann James (Intimacy).
Limited engagement through March 10, 2024. Tickets available online at roundabouttheatre.org or call to 212.719.1300, At the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street). Run time 100 minutes, no intermission.