‘Bo-Nita’ tells the tale of an at-risk teen’s so-called life
A review of Elizabeth Heffron’s new play at Seattle Rep, about an adolescent who is navigating the already-tough teen years in a rough neighborhood and with little help from adults. Through Nov. 17, 2013.
Seattle Times theater critic
By Elizabeth Heffron. Through Nov. 17, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $12-$65 (206-443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).
Bo-Nita has a lot to tell you.
This robust young narrator of a crazy, mixed-up adolescence isn’t as cynical as her fictional counterpart Holden Caulfield. Or as well-provided-for and levelheaded as the teen played by Claire Danes on TV’s “My So-Called Life.”
Portrayed at Seattle Repertory Theatre in worn jeans and floppy orange top by Hannah Mootz, the tarnished innocent in Elizabeth Heffron’s new 90-minute solo play “Bo-Nita” doesn’t have the luxury of fretting over crushes on schoolmates, or chatter on Facebook. She is too busy raising herself, and wondering what potentially dangerous loser boyfriend her waitress mother Mona will bring home next. And whether her single parent will wind up again in “California” — a euphemism for the slammer.
And Bo-Nita is trying, hard, to use stress-reduction tools a school counselor taught her to control the rage that swells up in her 13-year old psyche — like when an older man she both loves and despises puts the make on her. Or when some snotty upscale stranger looks at her crosswise.
Seattle-based Heffron’s cluttered, revved-up, ultimately poignant script swerves between a comedy of the grotesque that draws guffaws and cringes, and a compassionate study of a bright, at-risk kid who talks tough but can’t always mask her hurt and loneliness.
Mootz is a strong presence and an impressive multitasker in the one-actor cast. She isn’t just Bo-Nita, but also channels numerous adults surrounding, irritating and in some instances tormenting this besieged St. Louis teen: a fatherly yet repulsive, part-Cajun lowlife and a pot-growing grandma among them. When the story really gets cooking, Mootz is tasked with feverishly funny four-way conversations, and she pulls them off.
The voices can blur and confuse, in Bo-Nita’s twisted slapstick tale of surviving sexual threat, brute violence, cockamamie cover-ups and the impractical upward-mobility schemes of her optimistic but hard-luck mom.
Developed in Seattle Rep’s Writers Group program, Heffron’s play can be gutsy and rewarding if you can hang in there with an open mind. But the tonal mismatches and wordy lags in the script can’t be entirely masked in the keenly wrought staging by director Paul Budraitis.
“Bo-Nita” starts off fearlessly, slamming you with gritty (and rather shocking) details that establish the central character’s defiant bravado and dire straits but may be a turnoff to delicate sensibilities.
The script loses some momentum as it backtracks and digresses. When the main story kicks in again, and picks up speed and black comedy, it’s packed with zany absurdities, elaborate similes and harsh sociological facts of imperiled youth. Some of that comes at you too thick and fast to sink in, which Heffron may want to address in future drafts.
Whenever Bo-Nita gets a quiet moment of reflection, twinges of vulnerability, or a simple, candid exchange with her mother (who is astutely allowed to be both reckless and loving) it intensifies our interest in a young life too precious to waste. Heffron’s teen portrait is, at heart, a valuable reminder that such marginal adolescents are not mere statistics, but flesh-and-blood individuals.
The Rep production ends on a resonant, nonverbal note. Bo-Nita stands in front of her new public school (evoked in Jennifer Zeyl’s fine set design, and by Robert Aguilar’s subtle lighting), waiting for her mom to pick her up. Mona is late. Bo-Nita is worried. Then she remembers to soothe herself by tapping out a “personal rhythm” she’s invented. It is a lively beat that might help save her.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org