BWW Reviews: JASON INVISIBLE Premieres at Kennedy Center, Explores Tough Psychosocial Issues
One would not generally expect a theatrical endeavor that's geared towards pre-teens and teenagers to explore mental illness. Certainly, the devastating effects of such diseases on the people who have them and their family and friends have been explored in many a play from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to the more recent Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical Next to Normal, but these artistic triumphs weren't exactly considered family fare. So, you might ask, what was the Kennedy Center, in collaboration with VSA, thinking when it decided to mount a world premiere production of Jason Invisible, based on Han Nolan's young adult novel, Crazy?
I will say one thing. This Laurie Brooks-adapted play is definitely relevant and excels in the fact that it speaks equally to both children and adults. With assistance from director Rosemary Newcott, it offers a streamlined examination of issues of modern importance. We first meet Jason (Mark Halpern), an average teenage boy, albeit one who's a bit socially isolated. He's still recovering from the unexpected and sudden loss of his mother. His father (Michael John Casey) isn't handling the change very well. The loss of his wife has sent him reeling into a fantasy world of Greek myths and string music. The life altering death seems to have allowed a likely already pre-existing mental illness condition to rear its ugly head.
Without having a father to provide him with food and clothing, a heated house, let alone emotional support, Jason seeks solace in an imaginary set of archetypal friends - S.G. (Michael V. Sazonov), Dream Girl (Rana Kay), and Crazy Glue (Christopher Wilson) - and an anonymous advice column. When he's asked to join a psychological support group at school, led by caring psychologist Dr. Gomez (Susan Lynskey), he meets other kids who are dealing with family turmoil (all played by the same actors who play his imaginary friends). When they discover the secrets of his home life, Jason is faced with not only dilemmas about friendship and trust, but also potentially large-scale changes in how he and his father live their lives.
In this compelling drama, students and adults explore the balance between maintaining a secret a friend shares with doing what's right, and the role of the parent vs. the parented while also exploring the impact of mental illness on all members of an affected family. Hefty stuff, no?
The interactive theatre piece - with the details of the interactive part not being spoiled here - is entertaining while being educational, and fearless while being accessible. Although there is clearly a specific viewpoint on mental illness/family roles that underpins the story - the cast and creative team do well to avoid overtly politicizing the issues and mostly focus on telling the story. At times, the story can become a bit schmaltzy and self-indulgent - particularly as Jason grapples with his friends finding out about his dad's condition - but thanks to the strong and grounded actors - most notably Halpern, Kay, and Casey - and the solid direction it ultimately works more than it doesn't work.
Strong production values, particularly Micha Kachman's modern and colorful set, Christopher Baine's purposeful sound design - although more repetitive than I would have liked - and LeVonne Lindsay's colorful and personality-driven costume design, enhance the already strong play. It's definitely worth checking out this show. Many kudos to the Kennedy Center and VSA for taking a chance on this one.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Jason Invisible plays at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC through April 7, 2013. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.
Photo Credit: Scott Suchman (Wilson, Halpern, and Kay pictured - left to right)