We Call Her Benny
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 7, 2008
Suzanne Bachner's new play We Call Her Benny is a smart and compelling look at the travails of an adopted child, as an adolescent and as an adult. Bachner has staged her own play, and her direction is sharp and focused. The play's numerous scenes move backward and forward through time as we meet Anna at two ages—as a teenager (portrayed by Anna Bridgforth) and as an adult perhaps in her 30s (portrayed by Judy Krause). Bachner uses a spare set, simple costumes (bright red party dresses for the Annas, basic black for the eight-member ensemble), and a powerful concept for the many transitions whereby the ensemble chants or sings an idea or phrase related to what just happened while moving the scenery—and themselves—into new positions. It's suggestive of therapy, or ritual; both of these concepts (especially the former) relate to the key themes of this play about acceptance and moving on.
It's hard to pinpoint the most significant of the issues contributing to Anna's turmoil. She's adopted, but she's been raised by a reasonably loving, close-knit family (although there are suggestions of failings on the part of both parents, not to mention strings of illnesses—cancer, anorexia—that pull the family apart at key moments). But Anna is also a victim of sexual abuse by a close friend of the family, a young man about ten years older than Anna (he's a law student when their "relationship" begins, when she is 12). We eventually learn that one result of this abuse is Anna's inability to have an orgasm. Does it also presage her dysfunctional marriage to a man who is irresponsible and alcoholic?
Anna is also bipolar, and spends time in a mental institution while still a teenager before her psychiatrist gets her onto a regimen of meds that seems to keep her stable.
While the younger version of Anna tries to cope with these traumas, we see the older Anna deal with the unexpected overtures of her best friend's boyfriend, who wants to have oral sex with her. We also witness the grown-up Anna's meetings with her birth mother, who apparently gave up her child because she was unmarried at the time; this woman, Judy, is as nightmarishly strange to Anna as it's possible to be.
I felt that Bachner had overloaded Anna with trouble in this play, to the point where it was difficult to determine which events were most important to her personal growth; also, having Anna be, essentially, the victim of sick and inattentive parents, a deceitful and manipulative older man, an unreliable best friend, a drunken husband, a tyrannical doctor, and a monstrous birth mother tends to push her character into reactive mode almost all the time. Her journey toward acceptance and recovery is less well defined here than the significant obstacles she needs to overcome to complete it.
But the play's separate scenes that depict these various challenges of Anna's are each enormously effective on their own. The writing is intelligent and adult (there's lots of talk about sex, all tastefully depicted). The ensemble is fine, with particular excellent work delivered by Morgan Lindsay Tachco as the administrator of the clinic which placed Anna with her adoptive parents, Danny Wiseman as Anna's egotistical "boyfriend"/abuser, and Bob Brader as his younger brother and also as Peter, the man who wants to genuinely make love to the adult Anna.
We Call Her Benny is hard-hitting theatre that provides a great deal of food for thought about the ways that various kinds of dysfunctionality can harm a vulnerable psyche...and how healing is still, nevertheless, possible.