If you’re not already fascinated by Amina Henry’s Hunter John and Jane — a love story with scary undertones — you’ll probably start paying close attention when the squirrel guts come out. That’s right: Henry’s play features the consumption of slimy, dark-red living matter, yanked from the interior of a pretty cute stuffed squirrel by the bow-and-arrow–wielding John of the title. This swerve from charming to unabashedly gory is representative of larger conflicting currents running through Henry’s sprawling new work, directed by Sash Bischoff and running at Jack through August 18.
Hunter John and Jane chronicles the affection between two people made invisible by societal violence. There’s Jane (Erin Cherry), the very talkative ghost of a young black woman whose rape and murder quickly became a cold case. Her undiscovered body is buried in the park where Henry sets her play. John (Bob Jaffe) is a homeless park-dweller, also unseen, because passersby ignore him. He’s lanky and unshaven, frequently sips from a flask, and observes daily life in the park from atop a pile of cardboard boxes. Other locals wander through: a self-satisfied white couple (Daniel Kublick and Carolyn Holding), a pair of beat cops (Ugo Chukwu and Jane Bradley), a writer in high heels (Jenson Smith). And then there’s Jane’s mother (Madeline McCray), canvassing for clues about her vanished daughter.
Henry’s theatrical world is funny and strange and unpredictably horrible. At first, scenes are comic. The white couple enjoys an absurdly chaste courtship, clasping hands and uttering silly platitudes about love. The writer inscribes amusingly odd poetry in her journal. John offers commentary and idiosyncratic personal memories; he’s got a taste for innards, it turns out, having once consumed his recently deceased mother’s pancreas. There’s a Brechtian quality to the dialogue, which combines delightfully direct declaratives with imaginative expressions of emotion.
Also Brechtian is the way small interactions index deeper chasms in society. The male cop accuses the writer of soliciting sex, because her heels are so high. She’s shocked and offended. John asks the couple not to throw their coffee cup on the ground — there’s a trashcan right beside them. They’re shocked and offended. No one listens to anyone, especially to John — except Jane, who rises from an audience seat and introduces herself, telling her story, listening to his, and asking that he search for her bones.
Under the park’s soil, John first finds one skeleton, then another. By the time he’s located Jane’s body, we realize this isn’t a park so much as an unmarked graveyard holding the bodies of women assaulted over years — the work of one guy, of white patriarchy, or both. Set designer Brett Banakis evokes this unsettling landscape by covering the floor with broken bits of white Styrofoam, at first suggesting snow, then litter, then bones. (Broken Styrofoam, with its implications of hazardous chemical waste, is an especially creepy choice for this.) When bodies are found, light peeps up through jagged apertures in the stage floor.
At nearly two hours, Hunter John and Jane feels longer than strictly necessary, and its songs (accompanied by Jack Dentinger on guitar) don’t land as sharply as Henry’s dialogue. Some theatrical gestures, too, feel incompletely considered, like a glowing child-size puppet who meanders onstage from time to time, manipulated by the actors Bunraku-style. Even so, Henry’s writing — this is her third production at Jack — is generous and surprising; if you haven’t seen her work, do so now. This sinister park is a world of hard insights you’ll want to stroll through — although probably looking over your shoulder as you go.