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By RAVEN SNOOK
For any actor, no matter how experienced, it's both exciting and daunting to carry an entire play---especially when the character is meant to be the voice of a generation (or at least a really loud and mouthy representative).
But that's exactly the burden on Jessica DiGiovanni, an up-and-coming actor who's only on her second Off-Broadway play. She's currently starring in Mike Lew's Bike America, a millennial coming-of-age dramedy that was produced at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre before Ma-Yi Theater Company brought it to New York. (The play opens Ma-Yi's 25th anniversary season.)
It's fitting that DiGiovanni made the transfer, even though her stage alter ego stays stuck in a rut. After seeing her as Penny---an emotionally disconnected grad student and self-declared screw up who impulsively goes on a three-month cross-country bike tour in the hope of finding herself---it's hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role.
Unlike Penny, DiGiovanni is confident about her life's calling, but she knows firsthand what it feels like to look at the road ahead and see only uncertainty. "I definitely was drawn to her right away," she says. "Certain roles come into your life at certain times when you're ready to deal with certain things. I know I really relate to this character in a lot of ways, and I think Moritz [von Stuelpnagel, the director] picked up on that in my audition."
Penny is the heart and not-always-likable soul of Bike America. She is the narrator and protagonist, and though other characters join her on her trek through the 48 contiguous states---including a married lesbian couple, two men with whom she has dalliances, and her sort-of-not-really boyfriend---she remains an emotional island. It's telling that DiGiovanni usually rides a stationary bike while her co-stars use half-bikes---they are able to move around the stage while she is immobilized. During her travels, Penny tries on personae and places as if they're new outfits, easily obtained, exchanged, or returned without consequence. It's an incredibly tricky part to play: She's got to be blunt but not bitchy, academically smart but experientially stupid, aggressive but entertaining. In other words, a walking (and cycling) paradox.
Thanks to DiGiovanni's natural charm and physical comedy prowess, it's impossible to dismiss the character, even when her actions are confounding. (For instance, Penny sleeps with her butt straight up in the air, her arms behind her back and her face on the floor). Though some of her behavior is associated with the Girls generation---sleeping around, avoiding personal responsibility, wallowing in ennui---DiGiovanni believes everyone has been in Penny's shoes at some point, even if they don't want to remember. "In Atlanta, we would have talkbacks and older people would say, 'I didn't feel bad for her at all. Why didn't she just go back to college?'" she recalls. "People are so hard on millennials, complaining that we sound whiny and trite and just need to get over ourselves. But I highly doubt there's anyone who's never felt unsettled or adrift. I think we've all been in Penny's situation at some point, where we realized something wasn't right inside of us and we weren't sure how to fix it. One of the biggest challenges [with the play] is to get people not to shake their heads and not care about Penny. We want audiences to empathize with her and understand where she's coming from."
It's not a spoiler to reveal that Penny does not have a traditional hero's journey. She dies at the end (a fact revealed in her opening monologue) without experiencing a life-changing epiphany. Everything feels unfinished, and that's the playwright's point. No matter how long we have on this earth, we never figure it all out.
"Penny does learn that it doesn't matter where she is or who she's with, as long as she's unhappy with herself, she'll be unhappy," DiGiovanni says. "So at the end of the play she knows her problem, but she doesn't get a chance to fix it. That's the most sad and most frustrating truth of all."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Web Begole