'It's Gonna Be Hard': Gabby Beans and Rachel Bonds on the Beautiful Challenge of Jonah | Playbill

Special Features 'It's Gonna Be Hard': Gabby Beans and Rachel Bonds on the Beautiful Challenge of Jonah

The playwright and Tony-nominated actor are exploring trauma and redemption in the new Off-Broadway play.

Gabby Beans and Hagan Oliveras in Jonah Joan Marcus

Everyone has fantasies.

Daydreams allow a person to play out their desires in a safe, controlled alternate reality, leaning on imagination to fill in the gaps where real life fails to live up to expectations. In Jonah, Rachel Bonds' critically acclaimed new play now running Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company, the chasm that can come between a person's sense of duty and their emotional needs is ripe for exploration.

Main character Ana (played by Tony nominee Gabby Beans) is isolated in her bedroom, an ever-evolving inner sanctum where her deepest desires and fears play out like snapshots. As the porous division between her real life and her dream life breaks down, three men in her life steadily encroach on her solitude: her college sweetheart Jonah, her troubled stepbrother Danny, and her awkward neighbor Steven. As Ana finds herself cornered, unable to escape the repercussions of her life, her reality shifts, revealing truths she had hidden from herself for years.

It's a difficult emotional state to maintain, but you wouldn't know it from watching Beans at work.

"I don't think it's too inside baseball to say that someone else was supposed to play the part," Beans confesses. She joined the project only two weeks before rehearsals began, stepping out of her own prior commitment (The Apiary at the nearby Second Stage Theater). While leaving existing projects is never easy, Beans knew there was no real choice after she read Bonds' script for the first time. "I kind of became obsessed with it. And then, I was really scared, because I knew how hard it would be." 

The stages of trauma that Ana endures in the play require a remarkable strength of spirit, something Beans possesses in spades. "I feel so grateful in my life, that I've had enough experience to tell the difference between the types of fear. There's the fear that is protecting you from something that will harm you, and there's the type of fear that shows you that if you do this, it's gonna be hard. But you'll probably come out of it a much better person. And that second fear is the type of fear I felt when thinking about doing this part. I just had to do it." 

Beans enjoys a difficult project; she was part of the ambitious Broadway revival of The Skin of Our Teeth in 2022.

Rachel Bonds Marcus Middleton

The play first began to take shape for playwright Bonds during the 2016 election cycle. Pregnant with her first child, the rhetoric spouted by then Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump forced her to reexamine the misogyny that she had been taught to accept throughout her own childhood.

"I foolishly thought that the 'locker room talk' on TMZ would be the end of him. I was astonished to find that no one really cared–well, that's not entirely fair. Many people cared, but not enough people cared, and they didn't care enough to stop him," Bonds explains, her tone soft and slow as she falls back into her own memory. "I started thinking about all of the locker room talk that I had witnessed, been a bystander for or the subject of, and I realized the effect it had had on me and how I had normalized it. And that's a form of violence, to make someone think the normal state of affairs is to mistreat them."

It's not just abuse. The societal pressure foisted upon women to care for others, above all else, also plays out vividly in Jonah. In the play, after a series traumatic events, Ana struggles to keep her shaken family afloat (in spite of the damage it inflicts upon her to do so).

"I think of my own mother," Beans confesses. "For many, many years, she completely derailed her own desires and derailed her own wants in the world to provide for us financially, and to show up as a mother in what she understood that role to be. She, and so many women, use themselves up in service of others."

Explaining the source of Ana's trauma and what pushes her to move towards healing, and why the play is called Jonah, would spoil the play. But what Beans sees as Ana's journey is: "What it actually takes to allow yourself to come into contact with your own desires, or to come into contact with your own needs. That feeling, that it is alright to exist in your fullness, is something so many people never truly feel."

Jonah does contain some potentially triggering moments, around abuse and self-harm. Jonah's intimacy director, Ann James, was a crucial piece of the puzzle for the play, allowing the play's four actors to find truly communal safety while wading into some of the most difficult emotional and physical states an actor can inhabit onstage.

"This was my first time working with an intimacy coordinator on this level, and I hope I am blessed in my future career to continue to work with them," Beans states, smiling. "If I had my druthers, I would bring Ann with me everywhere."

While the play only has one moment of blocking that would undeniably necessitate an intimacy director, James' presence throughout the rehearsal process allowed the actors to feel comfortably emotionally, as well as physically. "Ann always said to move at the speed of trust, which I love," Beans shares. "There's a lot of intimacy in this show. And really, by the time we started to make physical contact with each other in that way in the room, we were all really ready to do it, because Ann had prepared us." While previous projects had expected Beans to jump straight into the deep end, James' process of helping the cast acclimate to one another did wonders for the mental health of all involved.

Gabby Beans Samuel Henry Levine in Jonah Joan Marcus

There is a tendency, when writing narratives about trauma, to conclude the story with the survivor returned to a place of normalcy, fitting easily back into their prescribed position in society. Jonah refuses to shortchange Ana's healing journey and her growth with a neat ending. It also refuses to turn her into a broken spectacle. "Healing isn't linear. Eventually, you do arrive somewhere, but it's not like you wake up one day, and you're fixed," Bonds explains.

As Beans further elaborates: "One of the things I love about this piece is the nuance with which Rachel wrote Ana's journey...These scars don't magically disappear with the right person or the right scenario. It's an evolutionary process that continues on for the rest of time, and I love that the play shows that."

Both Bonds and Beans are viscerally aware that there may be many "Ana's" in their audiences. The silent scars of trauma pervade widely, and they both hope that Jonah can be the wake-up call some need to start their own healing journey.

"A lot of the process that I went through in bringing Ana to life was believing that I deserved to exist in my fullness, and to be able to show vulnerability," Beans shares. "To any Ana's watching the show, know that it's your right as a person existing in this world to exist in your fullness. The completeness that you imagine for yourself is possible. It's OK if you are afraid of it, but don't lead with that fear. You deserve to exist vibrantly in your life."

Adds Bonds: "Trauma does not have to be what defines you as a person. It helps make you who you are, certainly, but it doesn't have to define you. Healing is possible for everyone...If you reach out for help, there is a way to heal."

Photos: Jonah Off-Broadway

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