When you are fourteen, choosing which clothes to wear and lunch table politics should top the list of big events of your school day.
Jason Papadopoulos wishes those were his biggest problems. He lives with a family secret that he protects at all costs. That secret and how Jason manages adult-sized challenges is the impetus for Jason Invisible, now having its world premiere at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater.
Jason Invisible offers a respectful look at the very real issues of coping with mental illness, children acting as caregivers of their parents and the power of friendship. The play is a careful blend of dramatic situations and comic relief that balances entertainment with the touchy subject matter of mental illness.
Skillfully adapted by Laurie Brooks from Han Nolan’s novel “Crazy,” Jason Invisible never talks down to the audience. In fact, it talks directly to them from the opening scene all the way to a question and answer section near the end of the performance.
Refreshingly, the title character is not the one who is mentally ill, even though he fears he could end up that way. Jason is the sole caregiver to his father who is trapped in a world of Greek gods and mythical creatures. Mr. Papadopoulos, who calls Jason “Apollo,” tries in vain to stop the voices in his head and protect his son from the raging Furies that lurk in the shadows.
Balancing realism with theatricality, Jason confides with the audience from the start and throughout the play. Mark Halpern, as Jason, plays the role with charm and simplicity and gracefully handles the direct contact with the audience.
Michael John Casey portrays Mr. Papadopoulos with understated complexity. He shows the anguish of a man trapped by his psychoses and tortured by the pain he has caused his beloved son. Reportedly, the actors had an opportunity to work with professionals and individuals recovering from mental illness, background work that served to enhance the performances and the production.
Due to his father’s condition, Jason attempts to fly under the radar and stay invisible. He works to remain incognito so no one suspects he is his dad’s sole caretaker, since his mother died. He is afraid to get help and open himself up to any real friends. He does, however, have imaginary friends.
Jason has concocted three of them to keep him company and offer advice: Smart Guy (the brains), Crazy Glue (the impulsive one) and Dream Girl (Jason’s biggest fan). Just to keep him in his place, Jason also hears a chorus of hecklers he calls the Laugh Tracks. The imaginary friends and voices serve as a Greek chorus for Jason’s decision-making, and as comic counterpoints to the more serious moments. They even assure Jason he isn’t crazy; after all, he knows they are imaginary. Sometimes Jason is not so sure.
Michael V. Sazonov (as Smart Guy), Rana Kay (Dream Girl) and Christopher Wilson (Crazy Glue) work well as the imaginary friends and have a winning chemistry with Halpern’s Jason. Sazonov, Kay, and Wilson each do double duty as Jason’s real school friends: peace-loving Pete, sensitive Shelby, and the outgoing Haze, respectfully.
Using the same trio of actors for the friends, imaginary and real, is a cleverly executed conceit. With creative staging and costuming and a well-timed sound cue, each one morphs instantly into their counterpart.
Pete, Shelby and Haze start out as members of Jason’s group therapy session and end up helping him as he desperately attempts to find his dad when Mr. Papadopoulos leaves their home to escape his unseen dangers.
In a lesser play, the climax might have been when Jason’s father runs away. As adapted by Brooks, the crisis of finding his father ends up being just the beginning of Jason’s personal and legal battles. Shelby shares the truth about Mr. Papadopoulos with the school psychologist (Susan Lynskey) who is forced to call child protective services. At last, Jason is able to get help for his father and himself, but feels betrayed by those friends he trusted.
An institution for his father and foster care for himself – just as Jason is inundated with a barrage of questions as to which way to turn, the play turns the spotlight on the audience. Members of the cast head into the audience to get answers to questions which grow out of the play’s situation. Is it unfair for children to have to be parents to the adults in their lives? Did Shelby do the right thing in telling about Jason’s dad?
During the matinee I attended, one young lady said, “Jason’s friend was wrong to break her promise to him but she was right to tell someone he needed help.” Another audience member, who appeared to be a parent, responded, “Shelby proved herself to be a good friend.”
Smart Guy also asked for a show of hands to see if there were others who, like Jason, have had to help their parents. Many hands went up, more than I expected. It was a telling moment: Jason is not alone. Nor is he likely alone in being afraid to ask for help.
Closes April 7, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour, 10 minutes without intermission
2 weekday performances and Saturdays and Sundays
In the adept hands of director Rosemary Newcott, Jason Invisible is presented with sensitivity and theatrical panache. Newcott’s production moves effortlessly through its 70-minute running time. Scenic designer Misha Kachman provides a colorful unit set that represents the inside and outside of Jason’s crowded mind as well as his home, school and the outside world. The lighting design by Kyle Grant compliments the scenic design. The aural palette offered by the original music of Ryan MacKenzie Lewis, and Christopher Baine’s sound design enhanced the heightened reality of the production. Baine’s contributions to the show – from the sounds of rushing traffic to the whimsical ‘zzzip-boings’of actors morphing into other characters – cannot be discounted.
Jason Invisible handles its subject matter with strong theatrical style and hopefully will have audiences talking about it and talking back to it in theatres across the country.
Parents should not hesitate to bring their children to the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater to experience Jason Invisible. It offers a first class theatre piece, a thought-provoking look at decision-making and the reality of mental illness.
Jason Invisible . Adapted by Laurie Brooks from the novel Crazy by Han Nolan . Directed by Rosemary Newcott . Featuring Michael John Casey, Mark Hairston, Mark Halpern, Susan Lynskey, Rana Kay, Michael V. Sazonov, and Chris Wilson. Lighting: Kyle Grant . Sound Design: Christopher Baine . Costume Design: LeVonne Lindsay . Produced by The Kennedy Center and VSA . Reviewed by Jeff Walker