Sarah Gubbins’s beguiling new work, commissioned for Steppenwolf for Young Adults, follows a gay teen as she negotiates high school, friendships, basketball season and an infatuation with a new English teacher who assigns Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. (SYA presented Rebecca Gilman’s stage adaptation of the McCullers novel last fall.) While Gubbins’s play includes all the familiar elements of a John Hughes film, including a suburban Chicago setting, its trajectory contains a number of refreshing surprises.
Jo (achingly honest Fiona Robert) is a talent on her Catholic high school’s basketball team and an aspiring artist who carries her sketchbook everywhere. Despite her seemingly close friendship with her school’s other out student (Ian Daniel McLaren) and a supportive family that includes protective older brother Reed (Bradley Grant Smith), Jo has a profound loneliness. The beginning of sophomore year brings with it a pair of big changes: new teacher Ms. Delaney (Lily Mojekwu), in whom Jo senses a kindred spirit, and new student Emma (Zoe Levin), whose shallow, popular-crowd trappings belie her friendly intentions.
Joanie Schultz’s fresh-feeling production makes great use of Jo’s artistic leanings; the stage’s two main playing areas are flanked by four projection screens that serve as comic panels for Jo’s ongoing graphic-novel interpretation of events. (The terrific, scribbly panels by artist Lydia Conklin, expertly animated by projection designer Mike Tutaj, also provide vital supertitling of text messages.) Gubbins’s tale proves a worthy, nonpandering update to McCullers’s themes.