Towards the end of Elizabeth Heffron’s hilarious new one-woman play, Bo-Nita, the titular character’s abusive former step-dad, Gerard, tells her that, like a fly stuck in a bowl of cereal, there’s no way out for those with roots in Missouri: you simply have to learn to like warm milk.

That may be for Gerard and the other adults in the state, but there’s nothing remotely tepid about Bo-Nita and the tale she tells. Instead, our precocious 13-year-old protagonist gets herself into scalding milk that she then whips, in a mere 85 minutes, into a Dairy Queen Blizzard of black comic delight, coated in a sweet chocolate shell of, if not redemption, at least hope.

First workshopped at PCS’s JAW playwrights festival in 2012 before premiering in Seattle last October, Heffron’s play takes place entirely in a playground of crumpled coffee cups and cigarette butts. Stepping out in pigtails and a backpack, Bo-Nita, played with teeny-bopper zeal and picture-perfect petulance by actor Kate Eastwood Norris (who also played the role at JAW), grows impatient waiting to be picked up by her mother and thus opens her floodgates of gab. But this is no mere 13-year-old’s rambling; it’s the complex tale of a master storyteller, seamlessly weaving in flashbacks and tangents to construct rich portraits of the adults in her life, all luckless would-be’s who are desperately struggling to tread warm milk despite the ever-present threat of drowning in sub-mediocrity.

First, there’s Gerard, who is priming to offer the story’s opening blow—literally—when he’s struck by a heart attack. Rather than call an ambulance, Bo-Nita, pissed off by his sexual abuse, pummels the living humanity from his face.

Second, there’s Mona, Bo-Nita’s scheming, self-loathing, but manically perseverant mother, who’s bringing home yet another man (#42), this time a tile salesman she hopes to get a deal out of, only to find her ex bludgeoned beneath her daughter’s designer bunk bed (the result of a more successful scheme. Other failures involved crawdads and llamas).

Third, there’s the adulterous number 42, Leon, who is understandably outraged at being roped into Mona’s madcap plan to dress the fat stiff in one of deceased Grandma Tiny’s belly-dancing outfits and some makeup and then to dump it in the jazz district.

Add to that flashbacks of Tiny, who dealt pot to supplement her belly-dancing, and her trailer-living brother, who drives into town on his riding lawn mower after losing his license, and we have a cast of five struggling sad-sacks and a child with a precocious grasp of the human psyche, all barreling towards an outrageous ending when it turns out Gerard isn’t as dead as they thought he was.

Bo-Nita
Portland Center Stage
Thru Mar 16

Under the exuberant direction of local stage veteran Gretchen Corbett, Norris soars in her characterizations, never once muddying the colorful personalities as she bounces back and forth in rapid succession. But perhaps even more exceptionally, her skilled acting combines with Heffron’s script to imbue a humanity that elevates each from a caricature to a character, in the eccentric sense of the word, deserving of our empathy. Even the abusive Gerard filters through Bo-Nita’s eyes with a nuanced ambivalence—she is justly angry while also being nostalgic for his cigars and life lessons.

In fact, it is this childlike courage born in part from a lack of self-awareness that brings Bo-Nita to such vivid, if troubling, life.  Despite her precociousness, she is still a product of her less-than-positive environment, prone to rage and racism, and naively unreflective of its sources and its consequences, leaving us “adults” to judge—if we can manage between laughs.

But with that courage comes hope. Bo-Nita’s mother tells her the hyphen in her name is all about holding on, and her spit and gumption are more than enough to remind those of us in better positions that if she can keeping kicking, we have little excuse not to keep holding on, too—even if it sometimes requires super glue, heels, and a little Preparation H.