Up-and-coming playwright Javon Johnson was introduced to D.C. audiences last season with the taut drama “Hambone” at the Studio Theater. A protege of August Wilson, he similarly reaches for themes that describe the African-American experience, offering writing that is sometimes compelling and witty. There are promising elements in his latest effort, “Runaway Home,” but the playwright needs to pare down a runaway plot that strains credibility.
Johnson’s writing career is clearly benefiting from the patronage of not only playwright Wilson, but Joy Zinoman, the Studio Theater’s artistic and managing director, who has developed a collaborative relationship with him. Also, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Co. has commissioned Johnson to write a piece called “The House That Jack Built,” which will be workshopped later this year by Steppenwolf and the Congo Square Theater.
“Runaway Home” probes a timeless predicament: A woman is saddled with her first child at 16. Four children later, she’s 36 with a houseful of obligations and her dreams unfulfilled. The pressures of responsibility and loneliness build, and when an old boyfriend shows up with a ticket to contentment, the urge to flee becomes irresistible.
Johnson drives home the scenario relentlessly. The protagonist, sensitively played by Rosalyn Coleman, is relentlessly harassed by needy people — her own children, who range from 6 to 20, and two determined suitors. Everyone, it seems, except the husband who flew the coop. The shabby living room-kitchen set (by Daniel L. Conway) is a virtual crossroads of speeding traffic, requiring director Regge Life to essentially play constable.
The other adults in “Home” are similarly finding life painful as minorities in the small town of Anderson, S.C., (Johnson’s hometown) in 1981. “As long as you’re dropping something off and not staying, you’re welcome almost anyplace,” one character explains wryly. As similar asides are sprinkled for comic relief, personal dramas are exposed for virtually every character (most of them predictable), while the play builds toward its inevitable climax.
There are some fine moments here, but the steady drum of discordant and overwritten angst finally reaches an overload, detracting from the final punch. And when that big moment does arrive — dependable mother abandons family on Christmas Eve — plausibility is stretched beyond reason. As is common with young playwrights, Johnson has overloaded his play with situations rather than fully developing his main characters.
Nonetheless, the Studio Theater has done its best with the material. An even ensemble is anchored by Frederick Strother and Cleo Reginald Pizana as the jealous admirers and Wayne Pretlow as the dependable uncle. Sekou Laidlow’s perf is sharp as the jewelry-laden image of temptation. Two adorable kids, Javier D. Brown and Christopher Gallant III, threaten to steal the show.