West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., 216-0833, book-it.org. $22. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sun. Ends Nov. 24.
The primary challenge facing Book-It Repertory Theatre in its adaptation of Jesus’ Son is that Denis Johnson’s 1992 story collection lacks a clear narrative arc. Instead, the 11 stories are loosely linked by a few themes—rampant drug use and bad decisions chief among them—and the brutally honest perspective of a desperate narrator who speaks in Johnson’s lucid barroom poetry. Jeff Schwager’s adaptation boldly forces a narrative on the stories by having one actor play the role of the narrator throughout. The result is a memory play that jolts from one bad situation to another. The hero’s search for meaning is meandering and foggy, yet the collected tales do create a sense of story and culminate in a few startling moments of grace.
Scott Ward Abernethy plays the protagonist Fuckhead with a true addict’s sense of resignation. Beset by bed-head and a hunger for heroin and pills (depending on the scene), Fuckhead stumbles from one vignette to another. Schwager has not included all of Johnson’s original tales here, but cherry-picked those with the greatest theatrical possibility. (Josh Aaseng directs the show, expanded from last fall’s staging, for Book-It’s traveling Circumbendibus program.)
West of Lenin’s black-box space features a bar and $4 PBRs, with live music from guitarist Owen Ross and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Annie Jantzer. The duo plays a key role in the production, performing background music throughout and giving Jesus’ Son a sense of place, in time at least, by playing old rock songs like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Bird on a Wire.”
In the first scene, based on Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Fuckhead has a premonition of disaster for the young family that offers him a ride. He gets in anyway, telegraphing his death wish, and the audience is treated to a disquieting bit of stagecraft. As Fuckhead narrates, the wreck is enacted in slow motion, the family’s horror made apparent as the band plays “Heroin,” the tense and propulsive Velvet Underground song with the lyric that gave Johnson the title for his collection. Hearing the screams of the driver’s widow in the hospital, Fuckhead proclaims, “I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
This is Jesus’ Son’s most powerful moment, and, like Fuckhead, I was spoiled by it—hoping for another dreadful fix. The play never again achieves such complete synergy of music, performers, and text. Yet the strong and fevered performances—in particular Zach Adair’s as hospital janitor Georgie—keep the tenuous narrative together enough to let Johnson’s intoxicating prose shine.