'Bo-Nita' takes audiences on a wild ride at Urbanite Theatre.
Elizabeth Heffron’s “Bo-Nita” takes audiences on a wild ride at Urbanite Theatre. You can almost hear the banjoes playing as the hilarity ensues. Yes, you’re in for a lot of laughs. But, every now and then, the play takes a hairpin turn — and confronts you with harsh contemporary realities that are no laughing matter.
It’s a one-woman, one-act play, with seven characters. Allow me to explain …
Bo-Nita is a bright, creative, plucky, observant 13-year-old. In the persona of the title character, Terri Weagant stands on stage and tells you her story. But saying she “stands” there creates the wrong impression. More accurately, Weagant’s all over the stage. In a quick-change performance worthy of the late Robin Williams, she shifts dialect and body language, and turns into the other six characters as “Bo-Nita” tells her tale. These include: Bo-Nita’s unstable mother, Mona, an alcoholic and recovering drug-addict, who’s been released (on probation) after nearly two years in prison; Gerard, one of Mona’s many ex-boyfriends, a philosophical 1/8 Cajun with good advice and bad intent; Jacque, Gerard’s more thickly-accented half-uncle; Leon, her mother’s latest no-account boyfriend, who happens to be married; Tina Bo-Nita’s pot-growing, belly-dancing grandmother, now deceased; Colonel T, her addled, surviving husband and Bo-Nita’s grandfather. It’s a brilliant performance. The scenes where Bo-Nita converses (or argues) with the other characters are a tour de force. I’d call it the performance of a lifetime. But the talented Weagant is just starting out. And I’m sure there’ll be many more.
(I’m happy to say these dysfunctional characters collide in St. Louis, Missouri, not some Carl Hiaasen-esque slice of Florida. Yes, there’s a city called Bonita Springs in Lee County, but that’s just a coincidence. America’s weirdness isn’t confined to the Sunshine State.)
Bo-Nita’s a sweet kid — smart too. She enrolled in a gifted program at one time. But thanks to her mother’s turbulent lifestyle, she never stays in one place for very long. Thanks to her mother’s bad taste in men, Bo-Nita’s marked with physical and psychological scars. Despite her sunny attitude, she’s damaged goods. The sweet kid sometimes explodes in violent fits of rage.
One such outburst sets the action in motion. Without giving too much away, let’s just say Bo-Nita invites one of a long line of father figures to her trailer while mom’s away. She’s expecting fatherly advice; he’s expecting something more. Bo-Nita fights him off — prompting a heart attack. And an inconvenient corpse, apparently. The kind of thing probation officers frown at.
Disposing of the corpus delicti becomes the task at hand. Bo-Nita’s account of this endeavor is a laugh-out-loud cross between Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and “Weekend at Bernies.”
It’s a hoot, most of the time. As noted, the play gets very real when you least expect it. That’s usually right after a big laugh line, but not always. The rhythms of Heffron’s script are never predictable.
Director Kirstin Franklin puts the pedal to the metal and gets you right into the wild ride. And then she slows down. Pell-mell rush is not her only speed. As the journey continues, Franklin constantly varies the pace and shifts the focus, so you never know what’s around the next turn. Everything hinges on Weagant’s kinetic, shape-shifting, fluid performance. Franklin keeps your eyes glued to her transformations.
Jeffrey Weber’s set has a weird, Nowheresville vibe — as if a giant broke off random sections of America’s urban squalor and rural neglect, and tossed the fragments together in heap. It’s a constant visual reminder of the harsh reality underlying the hilarity.
The play’s well-drawn characters seem like fugitives from “The Jerry Springer Show.” It’s easy to forget that Springer’s guests are real. Dismissing that segment of American society as “white trash” is equally easy. It’s the one remaining cultural epithet that’s safe to throw around these days.
“Bo-Nita” challenges that dismissal. Despite the play’s surreal elements, it paints an accurate picture of the lower circles of working-class life. The vicious cycles of prison, parole, zero-tolerance school policies, addiction, bad relationships and job loss that millions of American’s fear every day. And often fall into after one bad decision, catastrophic illness or everyday assault.
Bo-Nita escapes that whirlpool by the skin of her teeth. She ends the play waiting for a school bus on a street corner in an unfamiliar city. While she waits, she starts tapping out a life-affirming rhythm — the unique beat of her identity.
As if to say, “I’m still here.”