Review #2 of 2: Jenna & the Whale by Ground Floor Theatre
by Brian Paul Scipione
(Trigger warning: suicide.)
“Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them:
the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.”
― Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“They say, Jonah, he was swallowed by a whale, but I say there's no truth to that tale,
I know Jonah, he was swallowed by a song.”
― Paul Simon, Jonah
The whale is the traditional metaphor for what, exactly?
Herman Melville had many an answer to this query. Others suggest that whales symbolize a myriad of concepts— appreciation, faith, magnificence, messages, music, protection, spirituality, strength, transformation, wisdom, and more. The biblical tale of Jonah that playwrights Vanessa Garcia and Jake Clin, are name-checking so obviously is the lesson of a man who attempts to disobey God’s orders to proselytize the Ninevites. Jonah runs away, he but is waylaid by a whale that swallows him and spits him back up at Nineveh beach. God will not be disobeyed. This outcome can be given either a positive or a negative spin. God gives second chances, but try as you might, you cannot outrun God.
Miami playwrights García and Cline chose Austin’s own Ground Floor Theatre for the honor of premiering their new work Jenna and the Whale. It's described as a play about “life, death, and who we are as a community of individuals. It’s about the things we see and what we can’t, the things we know and the things we struggle to understand.” It also should be noted that the program indicates that “Jenna and the Whale deals with the subject of suicide.”
It would be easy to surmise that the whale represents suicide, but it also evokes all the grief, longing, confusion, and feelings of betrayal of those left behind. The playwrights' take on this controversial issue is made all the more intriguing by the presence of Patrick, the suicide, as Jonah, whom the titular Jenna encounters in the belly of the titular whale.
The American Society for Suicide Prevention (ASFSP) recorded 1.7 million suicide attempts in America in 2021 resulting in 48,183 deaths. Tthat makes suicide the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. A suicide occurs approximately every 11 minutes. Writing or talking about suicide is iherently very uncomfortable. Vanessa García and Jake Cline took on the challenge and asked director Lisa Scheps to bring their words to the stage.
Suicides provoke feelings of anger, confusion, distress, guilt, and resentment for friends and family. Jenna cycles through these emotions while confronting Jonah inside the whale. The twist is that both know where they are, but they don’t know who they are or why they're there. This play becomes a phantasm or meta-interpretation of the metaphor, both truer to the emotional life of the human mind and, mercifully, more bearable for the audience. If played only on the surface level, the story of an individual confronting a dead lover would be brutal viewing, much like sitting through a third-act climax for the entire length of the play.
Principals deliver powerful performances: Kelsey Mazak as Jenna, Matthew Vo as Jonah/Patrick, Tonie Knight as Patrick’s mother Rita, Keaton Patterson as Patrick’s sister Coco, and Jennifer Jennings as Jenna’s mother Lynn. This leaves Brooke Ashley Eden as Deputy Tyler shouldering the very heavy dual burdens of plot mechanism and comedic relief.
Jennifer Jennings delivers a heartbreaking performance fully embodying the Sisyphean strain of a mother forced to watch her child’s ongoing suffering while tenaciously struggling to find a way to help her break free. Jennings's performance adds a much welcome realism to a play ensconced in symbolism, magical realism, and the many metaphors cited above.
Mazak and Vo are a wonderful duo as they verbally dance around each other and the irrreality of their situation. At times they're flirty, at times they're desperate. At all times they're fully invested. One gets the impression they walk a tightrope between enjoying their reunion and admitting they know one another, which might ruin everything. In this way they create a pantomime of their original love affair. The cold hard reality of the past imposes a foregone tragic conclusion. In order to make life work in the belly of the whale they must disregard the inevitablity of an ending (this in itself is a wry commentary on modern relationships in general).
This is the dance of lovers old and new who believe that nothing in the future can taint the past. Love in the springtime of its youth is the best love of all, unless of course it is cut short by an untimely death. And nothing is worse than an untimely death that might have been avoided. That's a reality so harsh that Jenna cannot be blamed for not facing it. And yet, the people around her cannot be blamed for failing to understand. The anger and desperation that radiate from Patrick’s mother and sister are fully understandable. Only Jenna’s own mother can summon a sympathy deep enough to help, which she does through the theatrical device of an old photobooth.
Jenna and the Whale is a work both daring and necessary. Though presented with no intermission, the story is told in two distinct acts. The first is steeped in fantasy ithat allows two lovers to reunite in a charming dance of anonymity and fall in love all over again. This phase is filled with delightful and telling lines such as:
“It’s not that hard to be happy.”
“What did I have before you got here?”
“Last night I thought for a moment we were being reborn.”
“I think I invented you.”
“I haven’t cried since I got here.”
The audience hopes they'll use this opportunity to learn about each other and themselves but alas they do not. They scheme to escape the whale together by holding hands, but it is not meant to be. Poor Jenna is left to wonder all over again once more why he let go of her hand.
The second phase is intense and meandering, as one would expect in the aftermath of suicide. It drives slowly and steadily to a conclusion full of sound and fury, but as the Bard says, without significance. The angry are still angry, the confused are still confused, and the lost are still lost.
Certainly the audience has no reason to expect that the mysteries of suicidal depression are resolvable; however, this production devolves into a conclusion that can only be described as performance art, with puppetry, flashing lights, and bizarre slow-motion movement apropos of nothing.
Scholars debate whether Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is actually a pursuit of either true self-knowledge or the ever-elusive understanding of the nature of God. Some might hold that with his death Jonah achieves both of these states. In this, Jenna and the Whale and Moby Dick agree; life is a state of perpetual ignorance that death may or may not cure.
979 Springdale Rd
Austin, TX, 78702
August 10 - 26, 2023
Ground Floor Theatre, Austin
[poster design by Shannon Grounds]