In the second act of Javon Johnson’s Homebound, Kane (Kobi Libii ’07) delicately walks across his prison-like room, lifts his fellow juvenile delinquent’s mattress to steal a Bible, empties a line of cocaine onto the Bible, combs it with a playing card, and snorts away with a $20 bill. After this nuanced pantomime, Kane delves into a verse from Genesis, “Who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

This charged moment carries an extraordinary sense of naturalism — Libii truly inhabits the room, and the verse from the Bible emerges naturally from the circumstances. The extreme choice to snort blow from a Bible is believable and clear. However, this scene stands in contrast to much of the rest of the performance. Frequently, Homebound feels awkward and at times haphazard, and this aesthetic confuses a potentially powerful work.

The world of Homebound is a bleak room in a juvenile-detention center, with four beds, two nightstands and a desk. The set design (by Patrick Huguenin ’06) imprisons both the teenagers and the audience — imposing columns of plywood hang from the ceiling in an open rectangle, implicating the audience in the action. Two stark white doors finely render the act of departure and entrance holy.

The anomaly of the set is the outside stair unit leading to a mysterious open doorway on stage left. The actors, under the direction of Natalie Paul ’07, never justify the presence of the doorway.

In the room unfolds the drama of four black teenagers, whose crimes vary from rape to patricide. The play begins with the entrance of the protagonist, Raymond (Greg Serebuoh ’06), a teenage murderer who finds hope in the recitation of Bible verses. The piece traces the evolution of the relationships between the boys and their desire — or lack thereof — to escape from the decrepit room. Every now and then, the action of the scene freezes and Raymond addresses the audience directly. Serebuoh executes the soliloquies with clarity and a tangible desire to talk to the audience.

Johnson’s script overflows with polemics focusing mainly on black identity, God, race relations and the question of free will, but the actors, with the exception of Libii, usually fumble with the content of the play. The philosophical debates border on anger competitions, and deterministic platitudes such as “some things happen ’cause they happen” are delivered with ambiguous flippancy and forced anger.

This constantly combative and angry tone makes it difficult for the audience to believe that these roommates love each other. When Spit (James Frisby ’09) finally leaves the detention center, he says to his roommates, “I love you.” Unfortunately, this potentially tender scene seems to come out of nowhere. If these pseudo-brothers found some joy in arguing with each other, as siblings usually do, then it might be possible for the audience to believe they actually care for each other.

Frequently, the characters refer to how “used to this place” they are, how a detention center has paradoxically become a home. But in reality, none of the characters is comfortable in the room. They move about the beds as if the room were a royal garden, too fragile to touch. Furthermore, the silent and unjustified presence of props such as the calculator on the desk and the Pringles on Kane’s nightstand heightens the awkwardness of the room. If the characters were used to the room, they would use it and its props nonchalantly.

Finally, the lighting design, which wavers between naturalism and radical expressionism, stands as the major obstacle for the audience. Spontaneously, the naturalistic lighting of the detention room might yield to a harsh, surreal red spotlight on stage right. These sudden, unexpected shifts remove the audience from the action. Instead of engaging with the drama, we are left wondering, “Why did the lights change so drastically?”

Though the script falters in its abrupt shifts of focus, the Heritage Theater Ensemble’s honest production of Homebound succeeds in raising many relevant questions, especially concerning the possibility or impossibility of autonomy within the deterministic, ever-racist social framework of American society.