One of the great benefits of intimate theater is that the attendee feels more like an active participant than a passive observer. This is ever true in “What Happened When,” presented by the Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theatre in Los Angeles. The current production (which will run through August 23rd) is the second iteration of the play that had its West Coast premiere in April. Due to popular demand, a third version is scheduled to run starting on September 27th until October 18th.
The 65-minute sibling drama encapsulates its audience so much that we might be inclined to hold our breaths as we watch Daniel Talbott’s raw narrative unfold in the haunting and gripping manner it does thanks to Chris Fields’ patient direction. Spanning six years, in the midst of a shiveringly frigid bedroom inside a farmhouse, between 2009 and 2015, we observe the interconnected struggle among older brother Will, a well-intentioned tough talker who is beset by his lack of focus and purpose; younger brother Jimi, who strives to overcome the hurt that his soul has endured as a result of trauma; and sister Sam, who loves her brothers more than anything and is willing to work as much as it takes to provide for herself and them.
Amanda Knehans’ scenic design is something to behold for how affecting and immersive it is precisely because of its stripped-down simplicity. A double bed, a colorful rug, a nightstand, a dresser, and a mirror, with the backdrop of a paint-splattered curtain is further furnished by its actors, who seamlessly fill the milieu with themselves, giving a remarkably tangible life to the production. John Zalewski’s dizzyingly distorted score – mingled with rock songs, such as ones by Guns N’ Roses – trembles with mystery and a crypticness that soon unravels with key exposition to provide more clarity. And, Rose Malone’s lighting well-illuminates the gravity of the plot, which is spliced with very true-to-life bits of comedy, along with a subtleness, and a sensitivity that is immediately captured.
The audience is at once able to sympathize with the vividly expressed characters of “What Happened When,” who recall their harsh realities set against the pain and comfort of bygone events and memories that push them forward into the future. There are some happy reflections of the siblings’ childhoods, including, for instance, spending the best two days ever at their ultimate dream house with an apple orchard, but the present indicates only a wistfulness that beckons a fruitful and wholesome life that is, as Will says with a sigh, “gone like it was never there.” While a glimmer of change can be seen, particularly for Jimi, it is a challenging existence mired in themes of abuse, revenge, coping, and making amends with loss. A plaintiveness permeates each spoken word, which is also punctuated with an overwhelming significance, juxtaposed against an ominously wheezing silence.
The performances are spectacularly tender in their own unique way, suggesting a provocative humanity that is utterly enthralling. As the resourceful, but philandering and blighted Will, Joey Stromberg gives a special performance with underlying emotions comprised of apathy, bravado, and hopefulness. Will means well despite not having a handle on his fate; nevertheless, he is never disloyal to his siblings and his binding support (albeit unconventional) comes through in spades via Stromberg’s strong delivery.
Libby Woodbridge portrays Sam, the realist of her family, who strives to remain optimistic and get her brothers back on track even at the expense of her own individual fulfillment. Still, Sam is only human, and is often at a loss for words, pulled down by her family’s morose circumstances. Woodbridge brings an unflagging focus to her character, emoting poignantly with her eyes, and coming across with a sweetness that is compelling. This is exemplified during a moment when she’s holding Will’s hand, recounting what her grandpa charmingly once said about big hands being a good omen, while communicating to her brother that she essentially wants the best for him.
Finally, Ian Bamberg is Jimi, the youngest and most vulnerable. He can’t bear the thought of going to school or playing basketball, as he lies curled up in a fetal position, clutching himself and his aggrieved identity as tears well up in his eyes. Jimi tries to forget, to repress, and to live anew and walk away from the embers of his real-life nightmares. What is an insurmountable task at first becomes more feasible as the years go by, and Bamberg is excellent at conveying an unshakeable helplessness that slowly but surely grows like the spring of a newfound opportunity foisted in front of a history that now serves to only positively remind him of his own redemption.
Overall, although “What Happened When” only lasts a little more than an hour, it imparts a lasting piece of wisdom upon its audience. That is, no matter the obstacle, or how unspeakable the anguish, the human spirit defies the notion of staying broken for too long. Even for a life left unlived, the specter of ultimate hope and renewal never dies.
For more information about “What Happened When,” please visit echotheatercompany.com