On the title page of her script for Bo-Nita, Capitol Hill-based playwright Elizabeth Heffron describes the work simply as “A Play Performed by One Woman.” Turn the page, however, and the complexity is immediately revealed: Set largely in contemporary St. Louis, the cast of characters includes Bo-Nita (a 13-year-old white girl), Mona (Bo-Nita’s mother), Grandma Tiny (in her late 50s), Gerard (30-something, part Cajun), Leon (40-something, African-American), Colonel T (Mona’s uncle) and Jacque (50-something, Cajun)—all embodied by one woman.
Hannah Mootz, the Magnolia-based actress chosen for this tour de force role, has split into multiple personalities before. For her senior thesis at Cornish College, Mootz, 26, wrote and starred in H’s for Hillary, a one-woman play in which a reality star modeled after Heidi Montag comes out of the television for a conversation with Mootz about her decision to have 10 plastic surgeries in one day. “We were the same age, and I couldn’t understand why someone that young would do that,” Mootz says of her inspiration. Though she’s been performing steadily (with Seattle Shakespeare Company, New Century Theatre Company and others) since graduating in 2011, she says her own solo play was probably the best prep she’s had for her role in Bo-Nita—given the quick transformations required—but this time she’s channeling seven people, of various ages and in various states of dysfunction.
The primary character is Bo-Nita (her name hyphenated because “hyphens are all about hanging on and keeping things together,” her mother says), a straight-talking teenager who reveals her personal narrative in flashbacks (sometimes within flashbacks) to situations involving sexual molestation, a highly unpredictable mother, a protective grandmother and the revolving door of men in her mother’s life who affect her own trajectory, for better or for much worse. But this is no sob story. “Bo-Nita is a very young girl coming of age who doesn’t give any opinion on her situation,” Heffron explains. “She’s not in a place to evaluate it; she’s just in it.”
Heffron, 56, known best for her play Mitzi’s Abortion, says that in an early draft of Bo-Nita, she had multiple actors playing the seven characters, “but it felt too much like a radio play.” She put the piece down for more than a year and when she came back, she says, “It struck me: This is all in Bo-Nita’s voice.” She clarifies that rather than “becoming” all these people, Bo-Nita need only “convey” them in the process of her storytelling. “We don’t have to believe the character is suddenly someone else. She’ll just be acting like them for a little while.”
Still, during the fast-paced arguments and physical altercations, simply switching back and forth between characters seems like a feat of derring-do. But confidence is high. Mootz says when she first read it, she thought, “I have to do this—it felt instinctive; I could see myself performing the play.” Director Paul Budraitis has worked with Annex and Balagan theaters and is making his Seattle Rep debut. Though his prior experience directing solo actors is limited to his own solo show, he’s similarly undaunted by the technical details. “It’s a chorus of voices that one actor has to bring to life,” he says, “but I’m not concerned about that—Hannah has already demonstrated she’s capable.” Budraitis says his focus is on something deeper. “The play has something to say, and I want to make sure that comes across. I want Elizabeth’s ideas to resonate.”
Heffron says Bo-Nita is about “the tenuous nature of what direction people can go in.” Bo-Nita’s story is full of near misses, bad choices and adults behaving very, very badly, but it’s also sprinkled with caring older influences who keep her from slipping off the map entirely. “Bo-Nita needs ‘the village,’” Heffron explains. “All those little advantages—a gifted program at school, a concerned counselor—give her a toehold. But just a breeze one way or the other can determine which way she’ll go.”
“This is the kind of work I’m attracted to,” Budraitis says. “It doesn’t let you off the hook.” He notes that a high point in the action has the feel of an antic farce—Bo-Nita and Mona try to cover up a crime by dressing a dead guy in Grandma Tiny’s belly dancing costume. “You could look at the whole thing that way—a madcap romp with a happy ending and neat resolution,” he says. “But what I love is that Elizabeth doesn’t give us that. Instead, we meet an intelligent, strong-minded young woman, and in the end we realize she’s still got some things to live through.”
Mootz says part of what she loves about the play is that it’s all told through Bo-Nita. “Sometimes she’s such a 13-year-old, other times she’s so profound. She can be so funny, then half a page down, so tragic.” Budraitis agrees that the script’s charm is how it “tiptoes over and back” between the dramatic and comedic. “The play is very human,” he says, “so it’s natural to have it be both funny and serious.”
As for Heffron, her hope is that audiences “let this girl in.” If they can do that, she says, they’ll be whisked along for the ride. But making a play can be just as tenuous as coming of age. “That’s what’s so great about theater,” Heffron says. “You control as much as you can, but then it’s up to something you have no control over: the audience.”
10/18–11/17. Times vary. $30–$65. Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St.; 206.443.2222; seattlerep.org