‘Jonathan’: His success may depend on others

Jonathan Gibbs (Sam Fidler) is overwhelmed on his first day of work in Moonbox Productions’ “Jonathan.” Photo: David Costa

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – We all want to fit in. And we all want to be good at what we do.

Jonathan Gibbs is no exception. He is 19, a high school graduate accepted by three colleges, and waiting on school, taking time off to work his real first job.

Unfortunately for him, that first job – working in a big box store with the ultra-cute name of Bullseye — is taking place at the worst possible time, the teeth of the Christmas shopping rush, when everyone is stressed out, especially the staff. It’s a time that bring out both the best and worst in people.

For someone like Jonathan, who is on the autism spectrum, it can all be overwhelming.  

The message in Moonbox Productions’ “Jonathan,” Mary ElizaBeth Peters’ new play at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, has a simple and a powerful message. We, as a society, can and should do anything and everything we can to help the Jonathans of the world get over their hurdles and be a productive part of the world at large. It may not take a village, but it may take everyone in a busy store at Christmas time to make it work.

“Jonathan” is part of Moonbox’s Turning the Tide Initiative, which seeks to encourage the works and celebrate the achievements of artists living with differences and disabilities.

Bill Mootos as Stewart Samuels in “Jonathan.” Photo: David Costa

In casting Sam Fidler as Jonathan, Moonbox has someone whose experience with neurodiversity informs his portrayal of the character.

Jonathan finds both allies and some roadblocks to his success, which he defines as “I just want to be good at my job.”

The accomplished veteran actor Bill Mootos is Stewart Samuels, the beleaguered manager of the Bullseye store whose impatience and failure to properly train and get Jonathan the help he needs leads to a meltdown.

Then there are the slights that start to add up as Samuels insists on calling him “John” or Johnny” even as the teen continually reminds him his name is Jonathan.

In the hands of a lesser actor, Samuels could be a cardboard-cutout villain, but as Mootos plays him he’s frustrated that while he’d like to be able to take the time to do the right thing, he is both too busy and doesn’t have the right tools to get it done.

Jonathan finds a friend and ally in Kara Powers (Kara Chu Nelson), a 23-year-old woman also struggling to find herself. At one point, Jonathan – using newfound independence – rides the bus to her apartment unannounced to “hang out” and eat pizza.

Sympathetic customer Phyllis Simpson is also a friend and advocate, stepping up to help when Jonathan becomes overwhelmed and then serving as an advocate for him.

But there are others heavily invested in Jonathan’s future, including his mother Alice (Laura D. DeGiacomo, another accomplished Boston-area veteran), a loving and caring parent who wants to protect her son while also allowing him to spread his wings and someday, perhaps, live in his own home.

One of the more effective and affecting scenes in the 70-minute production is when she addresses the audience directly and speaks from the heart about the path that led to Jonathan’s diagnosis and her hopes and dreams for him.

There’s also strong support from ensemble members Alyse Clinton, Kean Petrello and Lillie Reising.

 Playwright Peters lives the message she is promoting with “Jonathan,” working as an inclusion-based drama teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

Director Brad Reinking, who has been with the work since the pandemic delayed it, has made sure the cast is all in on Peters’ vision.

As with virtually every new work, not everything in “Jonathan” clicks. Some scenes seem forced or a bit awkward and the ending, in a way, seems out of sync with the message the playwright is sending.  

But that message rings true: We all have a part to play in helping the Jonathans of the world be “good at their job.”

“Jonathan” will be presented in repertory with another new play, Kevin Cirone’s “The Good Deli,” through Oct. 2.

Moonbox Productions’ “Jonathan.” Play by Mary ElizaBeth Peters. Directed by Brad Reinking. At the BCA Plaza Theatre through Oct. 2. Bostontheatrescene.com