What Happened When is a profound, evocative and intense immersive ghost story from the mind of Daniel Talbott. There is no stage. Audience members are transported to Jimi’s bedroom. The simple yet effective set design highlights the experience of the characters and a family in crisis. With only three actors, this play invites audience members to explore the inner worlds of adolescents making sense of a dysfunctional parental hierarchy. Far from a traditional ghost story, the ghosts are not obvious spooky depictions of the dead. The true horror of this performance can be found in the experience of the characters reconciling their feelings about the people who have hurt them. “Did he even love us?” Talbot captures the experience shame, guilt, grief, loss, denial, confusion, anger, numbness, and hope that one day things will be better. The adolescents are left alone to explore different ways of how to cope in an abusive situation.
Spanning over the course of 6 years, this performance focuses on the talent of its actors to translate the experience of the characters in coping with prolonged dysfunction. The audience witnesses Will, the older brother, masterfully played by Chris Stack, transition from a hopeful teen fantasizing about the future, to a hopeless, suicidal young adult mired in drug abuse. Although this piece has heavy content, Stack brings a steady amount of comic relief throughout the performance and finds the humor in a complicated situation. The survivor and younger brother, Jimi, played by Randall Clute, exquisitely captures the numbness and confusion of a boy coming of age in an unsupportive environment. Clute eloquently relays the struggle to make sense of his own sexual identity and reconcile feelings about his abuser while discovering how to move forward carrying his trauma and grief. Sam, the sister, played by Ellen Neary, takes on the role of the parentified child assuming responsibility of helping her siblings maintain their functioning. Neary beautifully communicates the role of an adolescent striving to maintain some sort of structure in the absence of parental authority. As the glue of the family, her absence proves detrimental to the brothers who are left behind. From a psychological perspective, audience members are able to get a glimpse into the compensatory roles that individuals are thrusted into to ensure survival of a family.
What Happened When is a beautiful, raw and devastating glimpse into the human condition. The title speaks to the mysterious style of story telling which engages the audience to decipher when experiences occurred. Audience members should expect to be heavily immersed by the content of the piece. However, the audience has no direct contact with the actors and are seated throughout the performance. The content of the performance may be triggering to individuals who have experienced abuse. However, it is also incredibly well written, masterfully created, and can be healing for individuals who have experienced any childhood trauma.
Lovers of theater can catch a showing of What Happened When April 11-April 26 at the Atwater Village Theater in Los Angeles.