Jo, the young lesbian hero of "FML: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life," the new play by Sarah Gubbins penned for the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, is surely more resilient than her creator allows her to be.
In the world painted by Gubbins, Jo, who attends a private high school in LaGrange, is at the top of a very broadly painted hierarchy of characters. Cool, kind and hip as can be, Jo is the kind of girl who remembers what flavor her friends like at the Dairy Queen, hands out tissues to others when she is the one in real pain, never judges others and, unlike her overly nurturing gay pal Mickey (Ian Daniel McLaren), knows when people are best left alone and appreciated for themselves.
In a play that aims to point out the tough road that lesbian teens must trek at high school, a road whose very real bumps are familiar to many, you surely want a sympathetic central character. But the fearless and prodigiously talented young actress Fiona Robert, who plays Jo, is more than capable of entering our hearts and proving her worth — and still would be if Jo were allowed some flaws. There is nothing to fear here from honesty. Honesty is the Steppenwolf stock in trade. Even when the audience is young.
Gubbins' play has some terrific individual scenes of dialogue between Jo and her big brother (Bradley Grant Smith) and her mostly supportive straight pal (Zoe Levin), some of which have that clear ring of the way teen life is really lived.
But the way the whole story goes together here is much less secure. Director Joanie Schultz's premiere is both underpaced and, at times, awkwardly staged and generally still in need of a central visual metaphor that would integrate Jo's comic books (which tell of her life, and are drawn on big video screens behind the actors) with some sort of workable theatricality that would prevent them from being the kind of distraction that we come to the theater to avoid. There are big pauses and holes here, and the violent act that represents the crisis of the drama is awkwardly wrought.
Granted, it's a tough assignment to paint a picture of a modern high school with only five characters, including a teacher (movingly played by Lily Mojekwu), meaning that Jo's antagonists remain unseen and therefore elusive. One can see the reasons for that choice (why give stage time to hate?), but the show still needs more of the sweep, flurry and scary chaos of the judgment-fueled halls of any high school and some consistent rules about dealing with students unseen. (Are they imaginary? Are they on tape?) And, at times, the play also needs to find the courage to leave the school and cascade more broadly within this character's fertile imagination, probing her love of literature, her under-explored fascination with the author Carson McCullers, the complexity of her relationship with her teacher (who suddenly disappears for reasons that are never clear), and, above all, her deep and multifarious desires.
In so doing, and in allowing Jo to be first and foremost a teen, Gubbins would build a yet-stronger heroine whose individual freedom to proudly be herself becomes all the more of an imperative.
When: Through March 18
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org