By John Lyle Belden
I find it interesting that in “Wild Horses,” by Allison Gregory, on stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the main character of the one-woman play is 13 in the 1970s, around when I turned that age.
The story would feel familiar to anyone – recollections of a teenage year when it felt big things were happening and everything was changing – but there is a distinct feel in those days of kids among the first to identify as Generation X, more recent than the halcyon era of the 1950s or ‘60s, but before the decades when technology overtook our daily lives.
The girl we meet is unnamed (though one friend calls her “Frenchie,” likely a reference to the recently-released “Grease” movie) so we see things happen through her eyes. She lives in a countryside southern California suburb with a troubled mother, very strict father, and a 14-year-old sister she calls “the Favorite” whom she resents as much as she loves. Her best friends are accident-prone Skinny Linnie and budding delinquent Zabby, a tomboy with older brothers, Donno (whom our narrator is crushing on) and the eldest, who is aptly called “Mean Dean.”
When you hit your teens, a popular song on the radio is your anthem; for a typically horse-crazy girl, that’s doubly so with America’s “Horse With No Name.” The story opens with her trying to win an unusual radio contest in which entrants are asked to give the poor animal a name. We find out about the Favorite’s dangerous liaison, Mom’s condition – and her little secret – and the adventures our girl gets into with her besties. A badly-planned trip to rob a liquor store turns into an ill-advised venture through the fields of Morningstar Farms, a local horse ranch. A discovery made there in the dark is part of a summer she will never forget.
Directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, “Wild Horses” is performed by two different women: artistic director Constance Macy on some dates, and Jen Johansen on others. Macy, who we saw, notes in the program that the two have quite similar styles, which we agree makes for what we can assure will be an excellent theatre experience. However, the fact that this is a passion project for her does show through in her performance. We see both the woman remembering, and the girl living these events, in the way she presents this unique yet relatable coming-of-age story.
To help set the mood, theatre patrons are encouraged to add to a wall of notes reflecting on what ‘70s music we love and how we were in our youth.
Performances run through March 5 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis. Get tickets and info at phoenixtheatre.org.