Remember Halley and Moonee, the young mother and daughter who eke out a precarious, picaresque existence in a seedy Orlando motel in the 2017 movie The Florida Project? Didn’t your heart ache contemplating their probably-harsh future? Well, picture that pair about seven years later, only with the locus of their existence transported to St. Louis. That’ll give you an idea of the dynamics behind the dyad at the core of Elizabeth Heffron’s edgily funny play Bo-Nita, currently running at Denizen Theatre in New Paltz.
Here, mother and daughter are two of seven characters brought to vivid life by the only one we actually meet onstage: Bo-Nita herself, 13-year-old offspring of the feckless Mona, who’s not long out of prison, drinks too much and brings home a succession of gullible men she thinks she can con out of some material thing that she and her daughter need to keep afloat (the latest, Leon, is a tile salesman). More on Bo-Nita’s mind the day we meet her is another man, Gerard, whom Mona almost married before he started molesting her prepubescent daughter.
A very bright, spunky girl who hasn’t become entirely cynical and worldly despite having lived through many awful experiences, Bo-Nita still believes in miracles, and sets her wild story in motion by telling the audience about one that recently happened to her: Gerard having a heart attack just as he was about to assault her. It’s Bo-Nita’s chance to channel her accumulated rage. Then Mona arrives with Leon in tow, to find Gerard’s lifeless 300-pound carcass on Bo-Nita’s bedroom floor, his face pummeled to a pudding and sporting an awkward rigor mortis erection. Leon, who’s already worried about the fact that he’s cheating on his wife, immediately decides that this mess is not his problem. Mona has other ideas. Mona screws up a lot, but she always has ideas. They need two cars to dispose of the body by driving it into a lake and then return, so Leon is drafted into the caper.
Sound ridiculous? It gets ever more so as Bo-Nita spins out the tale. Along the way we are introduced to other bizarre people in the girl’s orbit – notably Grandma Tiny, who looked after Bo-Nita while her mom was serving time and whose long career as a belly dancer-slash-stripper supplies the costumery essential to Mona’s ingenious, doomed-to-spectacular-failure plan.
On the most superficial level, Bo-Nita is outrageously dark comedy that evokes frequent guffaws. But there’s ample drama here as well, often revealed in nonchalant asides and much of it unsettling. The playwright digs deeper into the girl’s past as we go along, the horrors that become commonplace in the lives of working-class women working their way inexorably under our skins. As some Holocaust writer I once read memorably observed, “Heaven defend us from the things that one can get used to.” It’s definitely not an entertainment for real-life 13-year-olds.
This play has some of the smartest, loopiest writing I’ve heard in a contemporary stagework in a long time, with an acerbic undercurrent of social commentary; but it takes an extraordinarily versatile and nimble actress to dart from one of these characters to another to another, even making them have conversations in various voices, while always keeping brave, resilient, resourceful, highly observant, wistful, goofy Bo-Nita at the center of our focus. Although she’s long past the age of 13, this role was clearly made for the chameleonic Terri Weagant, who cut her one-woman-show teeth on a couple of productions of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and wowed Denizen audiences last spring in Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing – also a solo outing – under the direction of TMI Project’s Eva Tenuto.
Weagant and Bo-Nita director Summer Wallace have worked together on this play several times before, and it’s impossible at this point to say where one’s genius leaves off and the other’s picks up. If your mental image of a monologue performance resembles a guy standing at a podium or sitting at a little table with a pitcher of water, prepare to be disabused of that notion. Weagant’s all over the place, making the most out of the small stage, a park bench, a trash can, her backpack, bringing the kinetic restlessness of a young adolescent with only half-quashed dreams and a lot of heart and imagination to her bravura portrayal. It’s an astonishingly demanding play, and Weagant gives it her all and then some. You don’t want to miss this one – especially in as intimate a setting as Denizen’s little black box.
Bo-Nita continues its run through March 1, with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets cost $28 general admission, $24 for seniors and youth under 30 and $5 for students. Wednesday-night shows feature an actor talkback afterwards. To order tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35097/production/1018799. Denizen Theatre is located on the upper level of the Water Street Market, at 10 Main Street (Route 299) in New Paltz.
Wednesday-Sunday through Mar. 1, 7:30 p.m./2 p.m.
Denizen Theatre, Water Street Market
10 Main St., New Paltz