Allison Gregory’s storytelling rides bareback across life’s unorganized areas in “Wild Horses” at The Vortex. At times heartbreaking and unremittingly hilarious, Jennifer Coy Jennings excels as the one-woman play’s nameless protagonist. Director Rudy Ramirez has cozily housed the play in The Vortex’s 20-seat Pony Shed, lending familiarity to an already intimate experience. The audience gets to share what feels like a talk, a bar story over 90 minutes with a character as she relives a few pivotal days in her early teen years.
Our narrator is already swilling a gin and tonic and chatting when the house manager ushers us to the assortment of chairs and stools crowded inside the shed. She’s singing along endearingly to “Big Yellow Taxi,” and what little space there is on the walls is papered with scrawled-on cocktail napkins. Ann Marie Gordon’s scenic design has literally surrounded us with the character’s mission to think up a racehorse name for a radio contest, scribbling out each idea to see how it looks. That longing to find just the right words hovers over the entire story — the need to revisit if not revise.
Before we know what’s happening, she is telling us about growing up in the “unorganized area” beyond the suburbs that are somewhere beyond the city in a time that seems just beyond our own. Coy Jennings becomes a conduit for Gregory’s voice of a warped and witty new volume of “The Baby-sitters Club.” Our protagonist’s best friends — worldly-wise Zabby, clumsy Linney — and she sneak out, swipe liquor, haggle for weed, and drive underaged. They are heirs to family trauma and malaise, but they have managed to cling to each other and hope for the future.
Oh, and there are horses.
The trio of 13-year-olds discover injustice in their world, animal cruelty at a nearby ranch. Coy Jennings mesmerizes as she fully re-enacts their adventures in attempting to covertly free a string of abused horses. But first, our narrator must trade two minutes alone with Zabby’s creep older brother to get a ride to the ranch. It’s her first sexual encounter, and (particularly during the current “Weinstein Moment”) the audience rightly cringes in anticipation. Coy Jennings’s character, however, subverts this: she discovers that she enjoys being kissed, being touch – only not by Zabby’s brother – and renders him pathetic even as he takes advantage. The sentiment seems aspirational (rather than naïve) given the current national conversation about unequal power dynamics and sexual predation, but it’s also a key to the narrator’s mission to set loose these mistreated horses.
Watching Coy Jennings traverse decades-old memories, navigating the impossibility of just being a teenager in a world thick with disappointments, it’s easy to forget that this is a small production. At a time in Austin when theater artists are being rapidly priced out of their venues, this production, while well-suited in the Pony Shed, could feel just as at home in an actual bar. It’s a tour de force performance for an actor who can play the mother of teenagers, and Coy Jennings’s portrayal reminds us how rich (and rare) female-driven perspectives are in the coming-of-age genre dominated still dominated by men.
This is Gregory’s second and consecutive appearance on the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premier circuit. Having already received productions at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (Shepherdstown, WV) and Centerstage Theatre (Rochester, NY) before The Vortex, “Wild Horses” stampedes on to New Jersey Repertory Company in February 2018.
“Wild Horses” is a visceral reminiscence. The drama doesn’t stem from whether the narrator will be alright – she’s here with us in the living present. Instead, she is a returner able to transport the audience back into her unorganized reaches of her past.
Don’t worry, though. She will have you back in an hour and a half with a good story to tell just in case you – like Coy Jennings’s character – told the teenagers you left at home that you’d been at book club the whole time.
(“Wild Horses” continues through Dec. 9 at the Vortex, vortexrep.org)