Elizabeth Heffron’s Bo-Nita is a bit of a tightrope act, combining flights of fantasy with some ugly realities and filtering it all through the animated storytelling of one 13-year-old girl. The one-woman show is anchored by a gutsy, versatile performance by Hannah Mootz, who plays the titular 13-year-old and six others, as she recalls one crazy day that started with her ex-stepdad’s death and then just got weirder.
That Heffron avoids getting too cute or too dark with the subject matter is a testament to her clarity of vision and her effortlessly lyrical writing. Bo-Nita may not talk like any 13-year-old, but she’s not a precocious caricature either. The heightened theatricality of the work is leavened by brief glimpses of Bo-Nita’s disturbing past, full of abuse and neglect, and it all comes together to create a portrait of a girl for whom fantasy is a necessity for survival.
Aided by Robert J. Aguilar’s constantly shifting lighting design and Matt Staritt’s tight sound design, Bo-Nita launches into an enthusiastic retelling, full of digressions. The heart of the matter is this: When mother Mona comes home to find her ex Gerard dead on the floor, his face beat to a pulp and Bo-Nita’s hands raw and bloody, there’s no time for rational thinking. A scheme involving some old belly-dancing costumes and carefully applied makeup takes shape, while Bo-Nita reveals the nature of her relationship with Mona and Gerard, and the dark secrets that are tied up in each.
Bo-Nita seems to have never met an embellishment she didn’t love when it comes to relating the broad strokes of the tale, but it’s telling how most of the horrific backstory is dispensed with in quick, casually deployed asides. Mootz’s performance is completely engaging, and the way she creates distinct voices and personalities for each of the play’s seven characters is a bravura theatrical feat. But even better is the way she allows the inherent vulnerability of Bo-Nita to occasionally creep past all the bluster and mature-for-her-age street smarts that define the character externally.
Originally conceived as a piece for five actors before Heffron re-worked it, Bo-Nita works exceptionally well with just the one, taking all the complex emotions of trauma and change and distilling them down into one little girl’s hopeful, frantic and heartbreaking perspective.
The world premiere production of Bo-Nita is on stage at Seattle Rep through Nov. 17. Tickets are available for purchase online.