Best friends Jenna (Tallie Gabriel) and Kate (Ellie Gossage) work retail at the local mall, folding “trendy” (read: ugly) clothing while gossiping about what ‘the first time’ must be like. Kate is extroverted and always excited to turn up, although she has deep-rooted doubts about her chances of maturing in all of the traditional American ways: graduating high school with decent grades, attending a college or university far from your small town, and making something of your life that would merit a little something often referred to as “pride.” Kate is forced to grow up seemingly overnight when a drunken sexual encounter at a raging house party may or may not have turned into an assault.
The perpetrator in question is Derek (Ed Rosini), a basketball player as well as a high school heartthrob version of John Mayer. Usually clad in a letterman jacket, Derek walks around with the teenage swagger of Warren Beatty’s bud from Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. Derek also happens to be the years-long crush of Jenna, a bespectacled girl living with her single father Kevin (Russell Jordan). Jenna is reserved and shy in public, but that comes from an inner confidence of not talking to people she’s not particularly interested in getting to know. At home and around the people she adores, however, Jenna’s curious personality and open heart shine through. She’s smart for her age without being condescending, and her capacity to listen is something I deeply admire, despite the fact that I am several years her character’s senior.
One of the most inspiring parts of this heartening play is the relationship between Jenna and Kevin; the latter treats the former with such trusting love, and it is absolutely reciprocated. A great example: when Kevin continually asks if his daughter is okay with his courtship of a new woman, Jenna’s only concern is for him to remain as honest—to his date and to himself—as appropriately possible. There’s something very easy-going about this father-daughter relationship, and that special brightness is most iridescent during conversations about more complicated issues. And, at the end of the day, in this household, transparency is of the utmost priority.
“one of the most inspiring parts of this heartening play is the relationship between Jenna and Kevin”
Kevin’s an ideal father not because of how much he fits into certain norms of what it means to be a good parent, but because he simply is a good person doing his very best to raise a daughter who will hopefully live a good life. Likewise, Jenna is full of nuance and allows herself to see nuance. Just like the show’s playwright Lia Romeo, Jenna doesn’t cling onto a black-and-white binary way of thinking. That’s the life perspective of children, as well as of adults who refuse to fully accept adult life. Nothing’s ever really simple or can be taken care of with one heart-to-heart conversation or the journey of a single day. Events can be complicated; feelings are complex. It takes time to really work through something. I often feel that most high school seniors are far wiser than we give them credit for, and that it is the adults—the ones who are unhappy and unfulfilled with their life trajectories—who try to unload hackneyed platitudes and life guru hashtags onto the heads of teenagers. Rather, we should trust them to know better and to do the right thing.
After some fantastically awkward conversations about Pottery Barn and types of fish, Jenna and Derek begin a sweet friendship. But when questions arise about his night with Kate, the friendship becomes undeniably problematic. Especially since Kate recalls some extremely disturbing moments from that night. Before the lights dim down and blackout, we see her crying at everything and everyone that she has decided to sacrifice and let go. She soon makes a stunningly sophisticated choice to do the right thing, even when that means embracing a possibly very lonely next chapter of her life. Ms. Gabriel’s vulnerability showcased such admirable strength, allowing the audience to root for her character who so clearly cares about herself in the long-term, rather than choosing short-term pleasures that would inevitably drag out mistakes already in the making.
“Benny gives a kind of hope that will humanize even the most sceptical audience member”
There are two particular standout scenes which I had the utmost joy watching and experiencing in recent memory. Firstly, comes Benny (Michael Fell). He’s Kate’s full-time best friend, Jenna’s part-time friend, and an all-around all-star of emotional honesty. There is a scene where Benny waits for Jenna at her house; Kevin answers the door, and the two gentlemen sip tea and chat for a while. It’s one of those unexpected conversations that get real… real fast. This is my favourite kind of scene to witness, especially onstage. Exploring the themes of LGBTQ+ issues in high school is a touchy subject, but Fell opens a heart-breaking vein of emotion. Once which feels genuine, rather than melodramatic, creating a truly evocative moment. Towards the end of the play we get an equally poignant scene between Kate and Benny. Without spoiling the final acts, Benny gives a kind of hope that will humanize even the most sceptical audience member, creating a truly heart-warming final moment.
Senior year of high school follows you long after graduation, university commencement, and into the beyond. All of those feelings and fears and urges to make moves and move on resurface in different ways at different transitional periods in life. If we can somehow maintain both an adolescent optimism and an adult self-awareness through our struggles and successes alike, we will be more than okay. We will be more than fine. We will be living our best and brightest and most beautifully sad and most buoyantly happy and most breathlessly right lives.
What Happened That Night, written by Lia Romeo and directed by Allison Benko, had its world premiere at Project Y Theatre Company’s third annual Women In Theatre festival. Tickets for further performances are available here.