- Courtesy Of Kata Sasvari
- Stephanie Everett
Some stories get written because a storyteller aches to tell them. It's Fine, I'm Fine, an original play written and performed by recent Dartmouth College graduate Stephanie Everett, is a sad story made engaging — and funny — by the author's keen perspective.
Northern Stage presented the play live and is now streaming Everett's autobiographical story of her struggle with the long-term effects of multiple concussions she sustained playing soccer. This tale of an athlete losing her body is more about Everett's attitude than about the obstacle itself, conveying the humor and resilience she needed to survive.
In a crisp hour, the one-woman show recounts several years of adaptation after blows that are portrayed onstage as lights and sounds striking the character. Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne directed the show after nurturing the script with Everett during the student's experiential learning term at Dartmouth. Dunne's staging and Everett's story combine to produce a roller coaster of emotion for the character to navigate.
Everett tells some of the story through songs, accompanying herself on guitar. The monologue is sometimes straight narration, but delivered as present tense to maintain vitality. It's liveliest when Everett voices other characters to create real scenes. That style of presentation and a self-deprecating tone energize the production from start to finish.
Theater monologues all have the same two challenges to overcome: expressing time and revealing conflict. A speaker capable of telling us a story has lived through it, so the trick is making a recollection re-create suspense. Here, Everett relives many events, reaching the outcome with us, but still must summarize some long, gradual experiences.
In It's Fine, I'm Fine, the passage of time has already changed the character's life, and she has had to weather most of those changes passively. As great a trial as it is to learn to cope with the physical and psychological impacts of concussions, the play's action ultimately consists of being strong enough to endure.
Two powerful events build to the ending, and a review shouldn't spoil them beyond saying that Everett's performance reaches an impressive height when the character is pushed to two different brinks.
The march up to these moments rests on the performer's storytelling skills alone. And they're admirable; Everett readily earns compassion and rewards viewers with affecting humor. But the length of the piece presumes a high degree of fascination with small details. At times, the audience is situated less in the character's struggle than in the unchanging contours of repetitive problems. It's as if viewers are parked on the sidelines, too.
Which brings us to another challenge of monologue: creating the other characters or events that make a situation into a story. Everett is consistently sharp at bringing other people to life with mannerisms and voice. She conveys a coach's narrow worldview by giving him a nice little pause to set his jaw and muster the brainpower to dispense the guttural insight "You're tough. You'll be fine."
The main character's first therapist maintains imperial good posture and a dry storehouse of canonical truisms. Everett pivots left and right to portray the therapist and herself in rapid dialogue, slumping forward and mumbling as her own character and springing back to rigidity as the infinitely patient, infinitely indifferent shrink.
Characterizations like these result in scenes of some substance. But finding love and losing it are recollected in song lyrics that don't register with much impact on the character, though they do leave us enjoying Everett's pleasant singing voice.
And little seems at stake when she smoothly conveys her mother's Senegal accent and cooking mannerisms during a scene in which the main character tries to kindle an argument with her mother about getting a tattoo. All we see is a mother tolerating a daughter and marshaling her sympathy into silence. We can infer that the protagonist's family is affected by how concussions have altered the trajectory of her life, but we don't see that family transformed.
Still, there's merit in building a piece like this around the simple, small accommodations that Everett had to make. The play's emotional power rests on the character's honest acceptance of her situation. The lack of pathos is refreshing, and Everett's tone is ultimately the vital engine of the piece. She can laugh at herself and fear for herself in equal measure.
The set is a green floor with a chalk-marked sideline extending beyond a square of benches, joined at the corners. The character is literally benched. The simple structure also serves as a place for her to lie down in troubled sleep, to step outside or to pace within. Dunne's blocking is never ostentatious, and the simple movement around the bench boundaries always strengthens the storytelling.
Choreographer Beatrice Capote gives the athlete slightly stylized motions that generally complement the mood but on occasion are a little grand for the matter-of-fact tone of the play. Film's default setting is realism, so movement that worked onstage doesn't always transfer well to a virtual viewing. Still, the bold decision to amplify experience through a hint of dance often works.
The show was performed live for audiences in October, with seating limited to a quarter of the theater's capacity. Alek Deva filmed and edited the production for streaming on demand. Though live theater doubtless gave the performance immediacy, this filmed version is inherently more intimate and suits the story well.
Lighting designer Jennifer Reiser and sound designer Jane Shaw express the forces buffeting the character. Sound and light are used both as instantaneous sensations to startle and as persistent metaphors for an abstract struggle.
The character observes that she liked everything about soccer except the game itself. Now her constant pain comes from something she was good at but never truly loved. To be left numb, foggy, isolated and depressed wasn't even an intentional sacrifice for a great cause. Watching Everett build ways to cope is inspiring. This is a character to root for, especially now that she strives for something deeper than whistles and cheers.