A man tried to kill Jeanette Buck, and on the way back from the edge of death she learned firsthand something the rest of us could stand to remember: People can be pretty amazing. There Are No Strangers, the hourlong play she’s offering up as testament to that redemptive discovery, chronicles both the attack that nearly destroyed her and the flood of generosity that buoyed her until she could stand on her own again—and in its premiere at Theater J, with Delia Taylor at the helm and Holly Twyford in a surpassingly confident portrayal of Buck, it’s a neat, efficient narrative remarkable for its sensitivity and its surprising, welcome streak of humor.
And its sophistication: Many an ought-to-be-inspiring story has curdled from an overabundance of authorial awakening, but part of what keeps Buck’s piece from clotting up is that it rarely presumes to offer answers. It’s foreign territory she finds herself in after she wakes up in a Los Angeles hospital bed—skull cracked, face all but destroyed, brain damage the question no one much wants answered—and the signs she posts on the way back are largely punctuated with question marks.
She doesn’t ask just the expected questions, either, the predictable ones that grow out of an assault survivor’s understandable uncertainty. There’s a not-too-surprising “Was it my fault?” rooted in Buck’s inability to remember the attack and the LAPD’s inability to find the attacker, but it’s followed hard by a “What would it mean for it to be my fault?”—a more reflective take than most could muster. There are darker inquiries—“Who did he recognize in me? Why did he stop?”—and some that lead in lighter, higher directions. “What is my relationship to these souls who have chosen to heal me?” figures prominently among those, and it’s one of the few Buck dares, with the similarly affirmative choice that is the play’s title, to suggest an answer to.
Twyford relates the story’s horrors matter-of-factly, never straying into pathos but never shortchanging the reality of Buck’s trauma, either. (Like many locals, Twyford has long known the author, a familiar fixture on the D.C. theater scene who’d moved to Los Angeles to try filmmaking when she was attacked; Buck has since returned to D.C. and a job at Theater J, and many Washingtonians, including Washington City Paper publisher Amy Austin, figure in the events retold here.) The coltishness that sometimes marks the actress’s characterizations has been banished; her tone and her body language alike have been transformed into something altogether more still, more coiled. Assurance? Maybe. No: a watchful calm.
Taylor’s staging is an exercise in concision, aside from one effectively expressive indulgence—a stagewide movie screen, which projectionist Michael Skinner and cinematographer Richie Sherman paint with snippets of grainy video that echo and amplify the events, the images, and yes, the questions Twyford keeps laying out. “What makes something sacred?” is one more of those—and in a memory play written by a woman who’s had to borrow her memories of a life-altering event from the friends and strangers who helped her survive it, that’s a question that suggests its own answer.