"What Happened When," directed in its West Coast premiere by Chris Fields at the Echo Theater Company, is a disturbing, hilarious, and shocking exploration of the unique bond siblings share. Daniel Talbott's play is, among other things, about memory and isolation. It takes place inside the bedroom of Jimi, who spends all of his time there. Through his conversations with his brother Will and sister Sam, we are able to loosely piece together their stories, which are filled with shared trauma, interspersed with fleeting moments of happiness. The siblings each try to help themselves, and one another, without really having the tools to do so.
The text is brought to life with three layered performances that show how each sibling deals with the issues at hand: Will, played by Chris Stack, with the aid of alcohol or drugs, presumably, uses crass humor to cope. Sam, played by Ellen Neary, usually holding back tears, tries to comfort her brother and convince him to face the outside world. Innocent Jimi, played by Randall Chute, just tries to stay simple and positive, even when he clearly can't.
The emotional intimacy the three of them share make their performances deeply affecting— it is as if the audience is there with the characters, experiencing the characters' emotions right along with them. During moments of tense silence between the characters, it seems like the audience is holding their breath with them, and our hearts break for Jimi during his final monologue. The actors seem slightly unsure of themselves at the top of the play, but gain confidence as the story goes on, making for a moving conclusion.
Besides the performances, the set is a large factor in making the production so intimate. It also adds a layer of fear, of something lurking just beyond Jimi's room, giving more reason to believe that Jimi's isolation is a response to trauma. The backdrop looks like it represents wallpaper, but it has two features that make suggestions about the nature of Jimi's story: First, it is translucent, taking on whatever colors are shining behind it, evoking a bubble, a space apart from the rest of us. The second important aesthetic choice here is the pattern on the wallpaper itself. With bold, abstract red paint splatter, the wall makes the room look a bit like the set of a slasher movie, hinting at abuse and pain in Jimi's past.
The simplicity of "What Happened When" highlights its emotional, empathetic performances and thought-provoking set. This production may take a moment to digest—but it will leave its mark on everyone who sees it.
"What Happened When" runs through April 26. It will be revived again in the summer, from July 25 through August 23, and in the fall, from September 16 through October 18, each time with a different cast.