Boy meets girl. Things get good. Then things get messy.
That’s more or less the story – narrowed to a nutshell – of Great Wide Open, a world-premiere production onstage through May 7 at Portland Playhouse, adapted by Jessica Wallenfels from the Kevin Canty novel Into the Great Wide Open.
Perhaps because I’ve not read Canty’s book, I find the titles a bit of a mystery. In Wallenfels’ version, there’s a glanced-over road trip, but otherwise nothing suggests grand vistas or clear, free spaces except in the most general sense that it’s a coming-of-age story: Welcome, kids, to the world of daunting choices and disappointing outcomes.
But, oh, what we can experience within that nutshell! In this co-production of the Playhouse and Many Hats Collaboration, Wallenfels and co-director Charles Grant present the story with such verve and vividness, such variety of expression and wealth of complex emotion that Young Adult-aisle material lands with an unlikely impact. Consider them kings of infinite theatrical space, holding court with a big, sweet, charmingly clumsy, passionate kiss of a show.
Perhaps I’m sounding too dismissive of the story’s teen protagonists, who in any case we come to feel deeply about, in all their courageous contradictions.
Anthony Michael Shepard, who shined a few months ago in a supporting role in Artists Rep’s American Fast, again plays the earnestly adoring beaux, Kenny. Bright but lost in a haze of pot smoke and indifference, he’s jolted to life on the bus to a teen religion camp by the goth-tinged allure of Junie: “Her skin was immaculate – that fresh, dead look,” the ensemble-delivered narration relates. Kenny is so smitten, his erection parts the clouds: “Even his melancholy had left him, the comfort of the gray light gone.”
Not surprisingly, clouds drift back into view. Leiana Rousseau Petlewski plays Junie as independent and headstrong, willing but wary. While Kenny wears his heart on his sleeve (“He wanted to say it out loud, like the first words of a new language: ‘I love you.’”), Junie sometimes puts up her emotional shields, tilting the power dynamic in her favor. Her mercurial nature keeps his neediness on the hook.
Their emotional relationship may go in fits and starts, but sex drives them full speed ahead. (“Their bodies fit. Their brains can go fuck themselves.”) Indeed, one of the virtues of Great Wide Open is in the way it deals with the carnal energy of young love. Before Wallenfels began to distinguish herself as a writer and director, she was a noted choreographer for productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage and other major theaters, and she’s teamed here with Grant and the cast to develop a handful of wonderful movement sequences representing the couple’s lovemaking – such as with the two facing away from each other, but with their necks cradled together sensuously; or them standing apart and leaning forward, balancing their weight on each other’s open palms. Between these episodes, casually poetic flights of language, the open-hearted performances and some surprisingly expressive use of big rolls of butcher paper, the show presents teenage sex in a way that feels honest but never crass, full of heat and abandon, but never free from risk or complication or plain old confusion.
As the couple navigate the twining lines of intimacy and independence, they can’t help but use each other as tools in their fumbling toward some dimly glimpsed self-actualization ahead. Meanwhile, their paths are complicated by the shadows of their respective mental-health challenges and the burdens of family relationships and legacies, Each has parents absent to varying degrees; each has been sent to counseling at a young age. From the start, their relationship feels crucial yet provisional. When they’re making love, or when Kenny is mooning in word-drunk reveries (“I am fervently fond of you! Avid. Ardent”), they can almost touch “happily,” but “ever after” dissolves in a mist of uncertainties.
(The story is narrated primarily in third-person, but as a reflection from Kenny’s vantage point: “He thought of Junie as a practice love. He would get older, he would get better at love….He would get older.”)
Patron emails and other publicity for the show played up its setting amid early-1990s suburbia, and suggested that the story reveals something about the pitfalls in the American Dream. I can’t say that either of those things is particularly salient here. A grunge-lite original score (by Eric Nordin, Katie Sawicki and Zanny Geffel, who perform live on stage) and some period design touches (a Janet Jackson T-shirt here, a brief blast of Prince or Public Enemy there) do provide energy, texture and (for some of us) a little frisson of nostalgia. And there are minor class contrasts apparent (Junie has doctor/lawyer parents and lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright house; Kenny lives with his dad, who, although an economist, is a foul-tempered alcoholic and an “Elvis of depression”). But relative privilege – even if it might help explain their character arcs – is far down the list of what’s compelling about their story.
For that matter, I’m not sure how much I really cared about the story, as a progression of plot points, even as I was thrilled at the experience of it being told. I was captivated not so much by what these characters do but by who they appear to be and how they’re shown to us.
As engaging as Shepard and Petlewski are, there’s even more vivid and precise work here by Beth Thompson, Lane Barbour and (regular ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea, each juggling a variety of supporting character roles and the colorful flurries of shared narration, ensemble movement and in-the-moment set decoration (butcher paper, again) that keep the show such a delightful, poly-theatrical whirlwind.
Some of the show’s most affecting scenes are those in which these other characters reveal their own muddles and vulnerabilities: When Junie’s mother lets it slip that Junie came from an unplanned teen pregnancy. When Kenny’s young teacher, after quitting her job, confesses her attraction to him. When Kenny’s father, handicapped and humbled by a stroke, apologizes for their estrangement in one moment yet still can’t contain his anger the next. It’s in these moments that we’re reminded that some of the same messiness that bedevils – and, yes, sometimes ennobles – Kenny and Junie is the messiness of many lives, many hearts.
Perhaps that’s ultimately what we see when boy meets girl to look out on the great wide open.