Review: Ground Floor Theatre’s Jenna & the Whale

Biblically inspired world premiere is a minor miracle

(l-r) Matthew Vo as Jonah and Kelsey Mazak as Jenna in Ground Floor Theatre’s Jenna & the Whale (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

There are several small miracles concurrently on display in Ground Floor Theatre’s Jenna & the Whale.

The most obvious is playwrights Vanessa Garcia and Jake Cline’s re-envisioned retelling of the story about Jonah – one of the Bible’s lesser and most unreliable, disobedient, and impious of prophets – and his miraculous salvation. As you may recall from Sunday school, Jonah is thrown overboard from a ship, swallowed by a “big fish,” and seeks forgiveness for his transgressions after three days of being fish fodder, which is granted by God.

Jenna & the Whale is set in modern times and takes place in the small community of Dunes Beach, Florida, where, three years earlier, a young man had been lost at sea in an apparent suicide. After a surfing accident, a young woman named Jenna (Kelsey Mazak) finds herself similarly swallowed by said whale and sharing space with a young man named Jonah (Matthew Vo). Long story short, it is Jenna and her small circle of grieving friends and family who are in desperate need of salvation and self-forgiveness.

Miraculously, the creative vision of director Lisa Scheps and her talented designers result in some delightful storytelling.
Miraculous as well is that the play’s parallel parable and moral manage to come through and hit home despite a wordy, convoluted script. It tries hard not to be religious but has religion leaking from its seams (the whale’s belly is illuminated by “light that never goes out”) and serves up an often-ill-suited mix of realism, metaphor, and casual absurdity (Jonah’s cellphone is still getting bars after three years and behind layers of dead zone-inducing whale blubber).

Authentic performances by a fully vested cast – including Keaton Patterson as Jenna’s friend, Coco; Tonie Knight as Coco’s mother, Rita; Jennifer Jennings as Jenna’s mother, Lynn; and Brooke Ashley Eden as Deputy Tyler – help along these lines. Knight and Jennings are particularly effective and inviting in their creation of believable relationships between their characters and their characters’ young daughters. This gives the play plenty of much-needed heart.

The script also toggles between scenes in the whale’s belly and at various beachfront locations, and it calls for people swimming in the ocean and a whale exploding on the beach. Surely, this must be a nightmare to stage. Miraculously, the creative vision of director Lisa Scheps and her talented designers result in some delightful storytelling: Jacqueline Sindelar’s dramatic lighting, Allie Kemerer’s creation of a surf shop, and particularly Lowell Bartholomee’s spectacular soundscape of whale song and thunderous storms at sea. Not everything works, and the pantomimed swimming is a huge fail. Yet some moments, such as the video footage of a conversation between Jenna and her mom inside a photo booth, are innovative and thoroughly engaging.

Conceived in 2018 and receiving its first staged reading in 2019, Jenna & the Whale has survived the pandemic. Convoluted and technically demanding script and all, now it is receiving its world premiere production. That’s the greatest miracle of all.

Ground Floor Theatre’s Jenna & the Whale

979 Springdale, 512-840-1804
Through Aug. 26
Running time: 90 mins.

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Ground Floor Theatre, Jenna & the Whale, Vanessa Garcia, Jake Cline, Lisa Scheps Kelsey Mazak, Matthew Vo, Keaton Patterson, Tonie Knight, Jennifer Jennings, Brooke Ashley Eden, Lowell Bartholomee, Jacqueline Sindelar, Allison Kemmerer

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