'Your Own Personal Exegesis' review — facing the sacred and the profane in this coming-of-age play
A Christian church, however progressive, is perhaps one of the most antithetical places to have a sexual awakening. That, or to have a fall from grace.
But in Julia May Jonas's Your Own Personal Exegesis, both happen on a collision course at [Redacted] Church in [Redacted], New Jersey. A lot of things are redacted in Exegesis besides the church's name — the last names of every character, for one, in the church bulletin we're provided alongside the show's regular program. It's the first indication that there's a sinister thread lurking beneath this comedy at the Claire Tow Theater.
There are actually multiple dark threads, though most aren't redaction-worthy. All four members of the church's youth group, plus its leader, are grappling with something, and they perhaps hope religion will provide them respite, if not quite salvation. For the popular Addie, it's anorexia; the shy Beatrice, bulimia and friction with her mom. Swaggering Brian's sense of self-assurance is more fragile than it looks, and Chris can't cope with his alcoholic dad's absence.
The youth group is their safe haven, however imperfect, with the 30something youth pastor Kat as a de facto parental figure they can seek support from. In theory.
It quickly becomes evident that Kat silently wants Chris, who, being an impressionable 18-year-old that deeply trusts her, resists little. Kat takes her ever-growing sexual frustration out on the rest of the youth group. Addie, Chris's girlfriend, and Beatrice, who isn't necessarily crushing on Chris but is enamored by the fact that he pays any attention to her at all, especially become collateral damage in Kat's abuse of power.
Now the redactions make more sense. This isn't just a play about teenagers turning to faith to find their way — Jonas is subtly making us look at sexual abuse in the church. The issue likely brings to mind older male priests and young children, with multiple such cases making headlines in recent years (and long before that — this show, for one, begins in 1995). But Your Own Personal Exegesis is a reminder that the face of abuse can be young, warm, and of any denomination. It's no less abuse.
It's terrifyingly clever, especially because centering Your Own Personal Exegesis primarily on older teens also allows the play to still function effectively as a comedy. Unlike young children, they're old enough to be aware and wary of the world, so we can chuckle at the perfectly innocent romantic endeavors and interactions that transpire separately from the central conflict. These are awkward, hormonal teenagers nursing crushes in a church basement — it's a situation ripe for comedy, so much that the dark stuff still manages to creep up on us even though we know it's coming.
Plus, the action unfolds as the youth group prepares for events like a dance-a-thon and a passion play (in which the story of the married Bathsheba and lustful David — note the parallel — is set in the Vietnam War era), and we get to see the increasingly sophisticated fruits of all their efforts. A spirited dance sequence to The Cardigans' "Lovefool" is particularly joy-inducing. It's also the first moment Kat and Chris openly exhibit a whiff of tension. This mingling of the sacred and profane defines the show up to its ambiguous and unsettling end.
Annie Tippe gracefully directs the show's many moving parts, and the cast plays teenage insecurity well, if borderline caricatureish at times. Cole Doman, as Chris, strikes a particularly compelling balance between lax-bro thickheadedness and sincere desire to be something more. As Kat, Hannah Cabell is excellent at being disarming until she isn't. Mia Pak (Addie), Annie Fang (Beatrice), and Savidu Geevaratne (Brian) complement each other well, though I'd have loved to see consistently more of them — their plot lines, especially Brian's, fade in and out, even as a turning point in the play hinges on their presence.
A church may not be the best place to experience a sexual awakening or a fall from grace. But the theatre, at Your Own Personal Exegesis, is the best place to witness one.
Photo credit: Annie Fang, Cole Doman, Savidu Geevaratne, Hanna Cabell, and Mia Pak in Your Own Personal Exegesis. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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