The attempt to expiate guilt about dark events in our past is a theme as old as Oedipus Rex. In Anna Ziegler's absorbing new play, BFF, the latest production of Women's Expressive Theater, a young woman undermines a budding romance to try to atone for her cruelty toward a childhood friend. "BFF" (Best Friends Forever) is the promise that Eliza (Laura Heisler) and Lauren (Sasha Eden) made to each other. But as Lauren rushes headlong into adolescence—starting her period, going out with a boy, and discovering her sexuality—she grows apart from Eliza, who is grieving over the death of her father and is slower to reach these thresholds. The growing disconnect between the two girls culminates in a harrowing "breakup" scene that is the play's dramatic zenith.
Ziegler shows a keen sense for the language and behavior of preteen girls in her gripping depiction of the rupture of this intense friendship, and these two talented actresses shuck years off their age without resorting to clichés in their performances.
In the second narrative thread, which takes place more than a decade later, Lauren gingerly comes out of her shell when she meets Seth (Jeremy Webb), a droll and self-effacing man who is smitten with her. But in sabotaging the possibility of intimacy or happiness, Lauren says her name is Eliza and keeps her real identity and life a secret from Seth even as they grow more involved. While far less engrossing, this tale has its memorably quirky scenes, including an unorthodox marriage proposal and a funny and heartfelt "final" voice-mail message that Seth leaves for Eliza.
The play ricochets back and forth between the two story lines in bite-size scenes, a structure that enables Ziegler to weave in echoes and counterpoints. This setup also allows the playwright to withhold key details in an organic way, since we don't know what burdens the adult Lauren bears until late in the play, when we are deep into the story of her friendship with Eliza. The play's inspired final scene—which goes back the furthest in time—adds even more shades of meaning.
The simple, all-white set consists of two chairs and two rectangular blocks. Yet set designer Robin Vest, lighting designer Clifton Taylor, and projection designer Kevin R. Frech conjure numerous distinct settings by projecting images onto the framing exterior of the building and inserting panels, showing the walls of various rooms, into the window at back. Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes precisely convey each character's age and personality while never calling attention to themselves.
Director Josh Hecht never allows the play's pacing to slacken and coaxes natural and convincing performances from his cast. Webb's restless body movements and flickering gaze convey Seth's endearing self-consciousness. Eden pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of playing Lauren at two ages. Heisler, though, is the standout as the intense and troubled Eliza.
Ziegler sometimes gets carried away in her zeal to shoehorn in lofty metaphors and a leitmotif about the shifting nature of time in the play's dialogue, endangering the realism that is so crucial to the play's power. She does much better when she lets her characters fumble and stumble their way to maturity. While no eyes are gouged out at the end, as in Oedipus, this is no easy journey.