In The Person I Once Was, Cat (Megan Burns) is a young woman who lives with her older sister, Mattie (Nicole Gramlich), in their house in a mid-sized town in Kentucky. Cat reads the newspaper and laments the tragedies she reads within, while Mattie insists that there are no sad stories in the paper, even when Cat points them out to her.
This early exchange reveals an important difference between these characters. Cat is a sullen young woman who compulsively touches her hair when she is uncomfortable or upset, and who nightly lights a candle for those about whose tragic stories she reads. Mattie is a comforting but inattentive mother-figure, who shelters Cat from the tribulations of the world, but is herself in denial of the experience of grief.
One day, while reading the paper on the stoop and crying, Cat meets Blaise (Matt Sanford), a grocery bagger at the local Piggly Wiggly. Blaise is polite but very awkward; he continually wrings his hands when he speaks, and never distributes his weight evenly across both feet—a fact that causes Mattie to take an instant disliking to him. He's "shifty," she says.
But as Cat and Blaise spend time together, Mattie (and indeed the audience) begins to notice a change in Cat's behavior. She eats popcorn after dinner. She starts drinking her tea strong. And, each night, as she lights her candle and says a prayer for the suffering, she removes her skirt, revealing another a shade lighter underneath, and sets it aside. In this way, frumpy, somber Cat transforms visually over the course of the play.
Soon, she is the one focusing on the happy bits in the newspaper and even invites Blaise to sneak in through her bedroom window. This suggestion makes mild-mannered Blaise uncomfortable as, he tells us, he is a changing man, no longer burdened by his dark past and trying to do right by Cat. He wants to walk in through the front door. Moreover, he wants to be allowed to hold the front door open for her.
Meanwhile, Mattie, too, begins to change; she begins to notice the unpleasantries of the newspaper. Following a bizarre scene in which she recites a detailed set of instructions for proper tea brewing while Blaise and Cat moan and writhe on the floor as they crawl toward her, Mattie can be seen folding Cat's many discarded skirts into a suitcase.
Roberta (Samara Neely-Cohen) sits alone in the back of a bar, late at night, when Danny (Rodrigo Rojas) wanders in with a pitcher of beer. He stops, appraises her, and then sits at a nearby table.
"Gimme a pretzel," Danny says, as he slams his beer down on the table.
Things pretty much go downhill from here. Both characters are drunk. Roberta's body language is very suggestive. Danny is bruised, rude and loud, with a heavy New York accent, and he explains that he got in a fight earlier and thinks he might have killed a man.
Over the course of their conversation, Roberta makes advances on Danny, which he resists, until eventually both characters are yelling and Roberta throws the dregs of her beer in Danny's face. He gets up from the table, kicks the chair out of his way, and tries to strangle Roberta.
A word of warning: This play is not for the faint-of-heart. The bar scene is very graphic, and the actors are very convincing, so much so that they had the entire audience squirming with discomfort, and a few people were about to jump up to the stage to help the seemingly endangered Neely-Cohen.
"Harder," Roberta croaks through Danny's hands about her throat and, suddenly, all the tension dissipates.
The thing is, given the play's disturbing first scene, what follows feels a bit out-of-place. For a one-act play, Danny could have ended right there, with Roberta comforting a confused Danny as she leads him back to her apartment, but it doesn't. After a brief set change, what follows are two more scenes, first of Danny and Roberta in bed after having slept together, and then of the morning after.
By the end, Danny has gone from brute to confused child to outright romantic—overnight, as it were—while Roberta has gone from the role of the independent to the tender mother-figure to the shameful victim. And while the two do, ultimately, end up together, it stretches the limits of what TS Elliot called the "willing suspension of disbelief."
Then again, perhaps the play isn't really supposed to be believable. Its subtitle of "An Apache Dance," which, the program says, is meant in the sense that it's "a violent dance for two people," hides a loosely-defined Beauty and the Beast motif. It's a harsh fairy tale about love springing up between people of unlikely circumstance and, in that sense, the play fits its role admirably.
With strong performances throughout and shows that invite us to question the nature of love and change, this Santa Fe Theatre Festival production is provocative, insightful and deeply moving.
SANTA FE THEATRE FESTIVAL
Through Aug. 22
Armory for the Arts
1050 Old Pecos Trail
For a full schedule of events, see santafetheatrefestival.org.