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Theatre in Review: When It Happens to You (Sheen Center)

Tawni O'Dell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

When It Happens to You is a harrowing story, haltingly told. The author, Tawni O'Dell, is also the star; admitting up front that she is not an actress, she serves as narrator, recounting the incident that shattered her family and altered the course of her life. Throughout, she is aided by a trio of professional actors, making for a jarring juxtaposition of styles. Written, directed, and performed with almost painful sincerity, it is an act of testimony that doesn't fully meet the gravity of its subject matter. All in all, it is an unfortunate piece of work.

O'Dell is a successful novelist -- she is no stranger to the Times bestseller list, and her debut, Back Roads, was chosen for Oprah's Book Club -- but, some years ago, her reasonably happy and prosperous life was shattered when she received a phone call from her daughter, Tirzah, who had just been raped by an intruder. Thanks to solid police work, the perpetrator was arrested and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. But the family's troubles were just beginning: Tirzah, who was getting started as a cook in a chic Manhattan restaurant, cut herself off from family and friends, became unreliable at work, and drank heavily. (In one of the more disturbing sequences, O'Dell gets a series of phone calls from concerned bartenders and cabdrivers who don't know what to do with the passed-out Tirzah.) Meanwhile, O'Dell, who also had alcohol-dependency issues, went into a tailspin of her own, selling the family home, giving away their beloved dog, and entering into a relationship with Mitchell, a film and theatre producer -- all of which further alienated Tirzah as well as O'Dell's son, Connor.

When It Happens to You reveals its hybrid nature in its opening scene: O'Dell introduces herself and offers a brief summary of her career; hardly a natural stage presence, she is the kind of affably awkward personality you might encounter at a bookstore reading. Then we hear the phone ring and the actress Kelly Swint, as Tirzah, crawls across the stage, crying out for help. Instantly, something feels off: Two different presentational styles are made to uncomfortably occupy the same space, each undermining the other. Swint's polished acting style makes O'Dell seem amateurish. O'Dell's presence makes Swint's work seem ulterior and overly theatrical. This is nothing against the actress, who is solid throughout; the problem is that nobody has settled on a clear way of telling this terrible story. The result, however accidental, feels exploitative of extraordinarily sensitive material.

The entire evening moves in this strange fashion: O'Dell continues speaking directly to us, dealing with the actors as they race in and out, dragging her into a series of fragmentary encounters designed to push the story forward. At the same time, the story she tells is loaded with gaps. Connor, a graduate student, is given a single attention-getting monologue -- at least in the hands of Connor Lawrence, who plays him -- but, otherwise, he seems pretty much disengaged from his sister's troubles, to the point of ejecting her from his apartment (where she has been staying) at 2am; his lack of interest surely wants further explanation. Mitchell is a hazily rendered figure, talked about but never seen; he and O'Dell are an on-and-off thing, their relationship further roiled by his attempted suicide -- but their decision to move to Maine and her children's rejection of him are never explored. Is this relationship fruitful, destructive, or somewhere in between? O'Dell is made to confront her enabler tendencies, but there is surprisingly little follow-up. When things start looking up for Tirzah, the reasons are left unclear: Has she been helped by a therapist or a twelve-step program? In any case, O'Dell visits a psychiatrist, who tells her she should write a book about these sad events. Apparently, she does, because the play climaxes with the author placing a podium downstage center and reading from a text that lays bare a traumatic secret she has never before disclosed. That the account is powerfully told doesn't obscure the questions it raises about the event's effect on the whole of her life.

It's all very mysterious, since the more obvious route for O'Dell would have been to publish a prose piece, something at which clearly she has excelled, as opposed to exploring such sensitive and highly personal material in a format for which she shows little aptitude. There are many moments that suggest a book or long-form magazine article would be devastating -- among them, a police detective spontaneously (and, perhaps, inappropriately) offering data about the persistent aftereffects of rape, Tirzah physically shaking as she awaits the verdict in the courtroom, and a couple of mother-daughter knock-down-drag-outs. In any case, the director, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, can't find a way to mesh the piece's opposing approaches or overcome O'Dell's choppy narrative style.

The production has a simple, sensible production design, including a set, by Rob Bissinger and Anita LaScala, that is dominated by four vertical panels; a varied lighting design by Daisy Long; effective costumes by David C. Woolard; and sound by Caroline Eng. In addition to the aforementioned cast members, at the performance I attended, Ryan Nathaniel George, subbing for E. Clayton Cornelious, was thoroughly professional as a police detective, doctor, psychiatrist, and other characters. Is it too late to hope that O'Dell might find another, more detailed way of telling her story? It would surely find a receptive audience and also do a great deal of good. What she has to say is too important and relevant to be lost in the piece at the Sheen Center. -- David Barbour


(21 October 2019)

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