You might nearly dislocate your jaw trying to suppress yawns through the 95-minute heap of clichés that make up Joan, a tiresome new drama by Stephen Belber.
How the author of slick plays like Match and McReele could deliver such stale stuff, and why a promising director like Adrienne Campbell-Holt would stage it, are mysteries only they may be able to explain. The result of their labors, Joan currently reposes at HERE.
A later 20th-century story about a persistently dissatisfied soul who does not know what she desires, Joan restlessly shifts back and forth over a lifetime from childhood to dying moments.
Bereft by mostly absent parents, Joan remains close to her younger brother, a carefree disco bunny who subsequently perishes in the AIDS plague. In her early 20s, Joan has an affair with an older, wiser gent, a writer, who cultivates her incipient artistry as a photographer. Joan also undergoes an abortion. Later Joan shares a longtime romance with a Pakistani woman whom she meets when they are both journalists covering conflicts abroad. Elsewhere among the years, Joan is wooed by and weds an easygoing fellow, but their marriage goes sour. Joan’s mother, who died young but encouraged her child to get the most out of life—“grabbing the bird by its wing,” she calls it—haunts Joan’s memory.
In her final decades, however, Joan manages to find contentment by ditching her career as an international photojournalist to be a schoolteacher in Pittsburgh and, best of all, a single mother of a bright son.
Aw—Joan only needed to become a mom to fulfill her life. Isn’t that a nice message?
From the earnest tone of his writing, Belber does not intend this outcome to be taken ironically.
What partly relieves the play from its multitude of tired tropes is the way Belber manipulates the chronology so that these snapshots from Joan’s biography are not sequentially arranged but are juxtaposed for dramatic effect. In order to patch together the non-linear narrative, Belber often lazily resorts to having Joan speak directly to the audience.
Making artful use of designer Grant W.S. Yeager’s fine lighting to shift time and place upon a relatively bare stage that features a camera on a tripod near its center (Andrew Moerdyk did the set), Campbell-Holt provides a fluent production. A cascade of projected images designed by Kate Ducey materializes during the conclusion to suggest Joan, through a morphine haze, is recalling her life as a photographer.
The title figure is played by Johanna Day, a gifted actor most recently seen in The Nap, Sweat, and Peace for Mary Frances. Joan is characterized by Belber as mostly a discontented woman and Day, to her credit, scarcely softens this prickly individual’s attitude except when she talks with her son. Shabbily dressed in a grey romper, olive sweater, and black army boots, tawny hair tangled into a rat’s nest, Day lends Joan a melancholy air that suggests her chronic blues.
All of the other people involved with Joan’s life are portrayed by Adam Harrington and Marjan Neshat, who ably manage to do so by minor changes in clothes and major differences in demeanor.
Produced by Colt Coeur, a company that develops and presents new works, of which Campbell-Holt is the artistic director, Joan proves to be far more effective in style than substance. Although the triste story is terribly threadbare, at least the way the play has been rendered and staged is skillful.
Joan opened January 27, 2019, at HERE and runs through February 16. Tickets and information: coltcoeur.org