For a play devoted to the ever-elusive mysteries of human existence, Stephen Belber’s “Joan” is remarkably transparent. The title character of this tedious grade-school-to-grave drama, a photographer portrayed by Johanna Day, is said to take pictures that “hide as much as they reveal” about her personality.
That, in any case, is the opinion of a smitten but baffled lover, who goes on to observe of Joan’s photographs, “It’s like they give us a true part of you, but only a part.” From the perspective of the audience at Here, where “Joan” opened on Sunday night in a Colt Coeur production, the view is considerably more comprehensive, though seldom very illuminating.
That ultimate, bald openness is true to form for Mr. Belber. As evidenced in earlier teasing, enigma-centered works that include “Match” (seen in a 2004 Broadway production starring Frank Langella) and “Tape” (which became a 2001 Richard Linklater movie starring Ethan Hawke), his riddles usually aren’t very hard to decipher.
With his latest offering, the riddle is life itself — and particularly, life for someone finding her way through the contradictory directives for being a woman in the 20th and 21st centuries. Directed with admirable clarity by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, “Joan” leapfrogs through time to connect the dots that define its restless, ever-questing protagonist. She is also exceptionally articulate, if seriously verbose, and banters her way through a series of relationships with family members, friends, lovers and strangers (all portrayed by a nimble Adam Harrington and Marjan Neshat).
As a child, Joan sees God (in the form of a woman who resembles her father’s former secretary) in her backyard, and talks the deity into her point of view. As a teenager roving through Europe, she yearns to capture those fleeting moments of “humanity’s rawness wherein lies truth.” (In “Joan,” purple excess is the lingua franca.)
As a grown woman, she goes through an assortment of jobs and lovers, covers the plight of women in Pakistan as a war photographer and becomes a single mother. All the while the person she remains closest to is her beloved younger brother, Charlie, who tells her, “You never alight, Joan. … You need to land. That’s where life actually takes place.”
Then again, Joan was urged by her mother, who walked out on the family to join an ashram, to grab “the bird by its wing, letting it help you soar.” People always seem to be offering Joan contradictory, poetically fraught advice about how to live. No wonder the poor woman is conflicted.
Despite its scrambled, globe-trotting chronology — and a simple, all-purpose set (by Andrew Moerdyk) that offers few visual clues as to time and place — “Joan” is easy to follow. As usual, Mr. Belber provides snappy dialogue that recalls an era of Hollywood movies when even the dimmest characters could come up with an epigram or two.
If only the inhabitants of “Joan” weren’t quite so fond of metaphors, which tend only to underline what we’ve already figured out. The recurring poetic motifs include a tall woodpile, based on the one in which Joan and Charlie perch as children to imagine their future, that is recycled too industriously.
She also speaks of an erotic encounter in which her literary lover, who is reading Ken Kesey’s novel “Sometimes a Great Notion” aloud to her during sex, keeps “chipping away at the redwood trunk of my emotional core.” Then there’s her dream about having to carve a giant turkey carcass, which represents — Oh, never mind.
Ms. Day, a 2017 Tony nominee for Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” glides through the many chapters of her character’s life — which include an early abortion and a deathbed vigil — with tireless grace and vitality. She never flinches while delivering tongue-and-thought-twisting speeches of introspection.
Here is Joan, being hard on herself, after explaining that she lied to us about a central moment in her relationship with Charlie, who dies of AIDS: “Having escaped the chains of routine, having grabbed tight the bird by its wing, I will be at the tip of who I am, gulping experience while capturing the world through the intimate-but-ever-distancing aperture of my lens.”
After witnessing a lifetime of such gulping — compressed into 100 dense minutes of stage time — you can’t help feeling that the eternal sleep of death must come as a relief to our worn-out, word-stuffed heroine.