by Samuel L. Leiter
Courtney Baron’s When It’s You, the Keen Company’s latest offering, is a one-person play about a woman coming to terms with her grief. For 70 minutes, she stands on a bare stage and relates a rambling, sometimes disconnected, but occasionally moving tale about two people she’s recently lost; the play offers her the opportunity to react to these losses and reexamine her life. Why she’s speaking to us is never explained but, by the time the piece concludes, we can be forgiven for feeling like we’ve been part of a grief counseling session listening patiently to a member’s lengthy account of her trauma and what she’s learned from it.
The locale is Dallas, Texas, where Ginnifer (Ana Reeder), still single at 37, has grown up and to which she’s returned after living and working in St. Louis for 17 years. A “dutiful” daughter, she came back when her mother was dying of cancer and moved into hospice care. After her mother died Ginnifer took over the family house, where her mom’s stuff became hers.
The practically bare setting, designed by Steven Kemp, offers a minimalist platform, being little more than walls and pillars painted a tasteful shade of pale gray. A wooden chair with a carton on it stands at center. Atmospheric variations are supplied by Josh Bradford’s subtle lighting and Justin West’s unobtrusive projections.
Ginnifer’s family issues, explained by Reeder in a dead-on Texas accent (although she mispronounces “ogle”), are intermingled with her recitation of a far more traumatic recent event. This is a mass killing and suicide by her high school sweetheart, Jason Hanley, whom she dated for five or six months, but hadn’t seen in 20 years. No reason is given for the slaughter but the ease with which Jason was able to buy his weapon offers a brief, if peripheral, reflection on America’s gun culture.
As the former girlfriend of a mass murderer, Ginnifer naturally draws attention from those who think she might be able to offer some clues to explain an atrocity that took everyone by surprise. Jason, after all, came from a decent Christian family and showed no warning signs, unlike the local tornadoes that give you notice that they’re coming. As would anyone, she’s stumped by the dilemma of how much any of us ever know about other people. Or how much we even know about ourselves, as suggested by the Cabbage Patch doll in the carton, a memento her mother left for her that reminds her of herself at ten.
Ginnifer’s tangled narrative, which moves around in time, requires patience as it slowly comes into focus. She herself refers to it this way:
There is a ball of yarn. You think you are a ball of yarn, so you think that everything from every time of your life is close together, but you have to untangle it. You have to untangle the yarn. And I think you will find. You will find that in order for the yarn or string to make a ball, it must be a long string.
As Ginnifer untangles her “ball of yarn,” we become enmeshed in her “unbearable loneliness,” her wondering if she actually loved Jason, and her concern over whether she can bring herself to forgive him. But the narrative surrounding these themes isn’t especially novel or interesting. Boiled down to its core, When It’s You is little more than a character study of a lonely woman whose mother died of cancer, and whose high-school boyfriend, with whom she’s been out of touch for decades, turned out many years later to be a mass murderer.
While not much of a play, the vaguely titled When It’s You offers Ana Reeder an extended acting exercise in which she offers a lovingly constructed performance, one that fully captures the emotional toll of Ginnifer’s experiences. As smartly directed by Jonathan Silverstein, she renders the woman’s ordinariness with telling honesty, showing us a simple, friendly (on and off Facebook), unassuming human being expressing her bewilderment at how her life has transpired, and what she sees when she looks in the mirror or clings to a childhood doll when seeking the answer to who she is.
When It’s You
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).