Best-selling novelist Tawni O’Dell’s autobiographical play, When It Happens to You, tells how she and her family dealt with the aftermath of the rape of her daughter a few years ago. It marks not only O’Dell’s New York debut as a playwright but also her first turn as a performing artist. She portrays herself in this 90-minute drama, directed and co-conceived by Lynne Taylor-Corbett.
At the top of the play, O’Dell announces that she is not an actor at all but, rather, “a writer here to tell a story.” Her taking on the role of Tawni lends a kind of immediacy and authenticity to the play that it wouldn’t have with any other performer in the leading role. All the same, it’s a stretch to have a novice performer take on such a central role in a drama like this. An experienced actor may have brought colors to the part that O’Dell doesn’t show here.
Much of the play consists of Tawni’s narration of the events that would alter the lives not only of Tawni and her daughter, Tirzah (Kelly Swint), but also that of Tirzah’s younger brother, Connor (Connor Lawrence). O’Dell tells the story for often-lengthy stretches, as though reading aloud from a personal essay. Then the others enter and continue the narrative by enacting it in short scenes. E. Clayton Cornelious—playing assorted roles, including a police detective and a psychiatrist—rounds out the cast.
The first enacted scene takes place on a January night when Tirzah—a culinary school graduate who is working at her first job in a hot Manhattan restaurant—frantically calls her mother (who’s in Pennsylvania) from the Bronx apartment to which an assailant has followed her, pushing himself through the door and raping her. Tawni remains oddly calm and cool in her subsequent efforts to aid her daughter. In her fashion, she strives to soothe Tirzah, but we don’t see her pull her daughter into her arms to comfort her. Tawni’s somewhat detached attitude about what her daughter is going through poses a mystery that won’t be fully revealed until late in the play.
The bulk of the drama follows the family in the months that follow the rape, as ramifications that Tawni never expected ensue. We follow the family as they endure the arrest, identification, prosecution, and conviction of the rapist. We watch both mother and daughter—increasingly disconnected from one another—begin abusing alcohol. We also see Tirzah and Connor’s sibling bond shatter.
As a writer, O’Dell seems to eschew melodramatic elements, including pat endings with fully resolved conflicts. This a work grounded in sober reality, a work that rejects the prevalent idea that “closure” is something that will surely erase all scars and “make whole” once more those who’ve lived through such traumatic incidents. If there’s any “message” that O’Dell offers, it’s that keeping silent about having been raped can only exacerbate the pain. At the same time, she suggests, women who’ve experienced such assaults need to be able to come out about them in their own time.
Swint, Lawrence and Cornelious all have good moments in the production. But they are at something of a disadvantage because the dramatic scenes tend to be short bursts of action depicting key moments of the family’s ordeal. The play’s structure—with its fluctuation between narration and represented scenes—doesn’t give the actors a full opportunity to fashion smooth arcs for their characters. (O’Dell does, however, give monologues as well as dramatic scenes to both Tirzah and Connor.)
Scenic designers Rob Bissinger and Anita LaScala have created a unit set with several vertical, rectangular panels that move about and tilt to help create different locales and moods. The costumes, by David C. Woolard, are unshowy but appropriate. Caroline Eng’s sound design includes sparse but effective musical cues.
Toward the end of the play, we see O’Dell at a book reading in which she shares portions of the volume she’s written about her family’s ordeal. Lighting designer Daisy Long brightens the house lights somewhat, breaking the boundary between artist and audience and helping to underscore an idea suggested in the play’s title: that what happened to this family can happen to anyone’s family. In fact, as O’Dell makes clear at one point, what Tirzah experiences in this play may well have happened to far more women than will ever be counted.
When It Happens to You (through November 10)
Warren and Jale Trepp, The Story Plant and EclayRossie Productions
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.WhenItHappensPlay.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission