While rehearsing in the living room of Wilsonville Stage Artistic Director Terry Kester, Zoe Niklas shifts from serenely introducing the play in her regular tone of voice, to cackling in the voice of her biological mother and then hurling insults with her legs crossed and a cigarette slotted between two fingers. Suddenly, she morphs into her earnest 8-year-old self — telling a story of her mother and stepfather fighting and her realization that her family is anathema to the ones depicted in shows like "Leave it to Beaver."
If you go
What: "Beyond the Dark: A Childhood Memoir
When: Feb 15-17, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Charbonneau Country Club, 32000 S.W. Charbonneau Drive, Wilsonville
Tickets: $15 for adults, $12 for students
In 2015, Niklas channeled her heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting life story into a memoir "Driving in the Dark: A Childhood Memoir." And next week she will perform a one-woman show, directed by Kester, and bring her emotional story and its cast of characters to the stage. The play is put on by the Wilsonville Stage theatre company.
"Beyond the Dark: A Childhood Memoir" documents Niklas' childhood growing up in a home with a physically and emotionally abusive mother, her sexually abusive stepfather, her constant displacement, her emancipation at 13 and her adopted family that helped guide her out of despair.
Kester and Niklas' working relationship began after Kester read the memoir a few years back. Unable to put down the book and learning of Niklas' acting chops, Kester contacted her and asked her to tryout for the role of Beatrice in "A View From the Bridge."
He immediately realized that Niklas could harness her traumatic experiences while acting.
'That woman (Beatrice) goes through every emotion that you can possibly imagine in the play and she's (Niklas) gone through every emotion that you could possibly imagine," Kester said.
Niklas acted in two more Wilsonville Stage plays before the duo set out to tell her life story. Niklas gleaned the idea while taking Steve Harrison's Quantum Leap Course, which helps writers promote their work in creative ways. Once a best actress award-winner as a freshman at Whitman College, Niklas thought a play would be a good way to promote her story.
And even when she was writing the memoir, she says she conceptualized it as a play.
"When I wrote it I saw it in my mind as a theatrical performance. That's how I see it in my head and that's how I saw it when I first started writing the book," Niklas said.
Before writing the script, Kester recorded Niklas improvising a few scenes. So when she began writing, visualizations of her own acting immediately surfaced.
Niklas said she didn't have trouble turning a 290-page book into a script because she says editing elevates the story's most visceral moments.
"If I was cooking I would let it simmer for a long time and let it reduce for a while. It's the same sort of thing with the script. We just reduced it and reduced it until we got an essence," she said.
Though the performance includes some dialogue, it consists mostly of characters delivering soliloquies to the audience one at a time. The constant character shifts require both physical and mental acuity.
"She has to change her posture, her voice, her rhythm. Everything has to be different," Kester said.
Sometimes, when Niklas acts out a particularly traumatic moment from her childhood, symptoms from the moment return. Her heart beats, she sweats or her stomach aches. But Niklas says she can block these uneasy reactions.
"Usually my mind overrides that. 'Don't talk to me now. I've got to do this,'" she said.
The play, and the book, contain elements of spiritual awakening. Throughout various points of her life, such as when she was sent to a youth center after her mother and stepfather didn't want her, she says she heard an inner-voice saying "I love you Mary Zoe. It will be alright."
Niklas said she enjoys switching between tones and characters in such moments.
"I startle because I heard it (the voice). And then I tell the audience what the voice said. I do it in a voice that's confident, loving, peaceful and calm. And then I go back to my little self," she said. "It's just fun."
Though they appreciate the Charbonneau community's interest and willingness to provide a space to perform, Kester and Niklas hope the story reaches eyes and ears well beyond Charbonneau. They hope to showcase the play in venues such as schools, prisons, the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) organization and similar groups.
"My story explains why CASA needs to exist. If I had had a court appointed special advocate, someone to follow me for years and listen to my stories, I wouldn't have ended up in the youth center three different times and fighting in the court three different times before being saved. I really believe that," Niklas said.
With pervasive accounts of sexual abuse rising to the forefront of public discourse, Kester says this is the ideal time for people to see this play.
"This is the perfect time for it because of what we're seeing happen to women all around the country. And this whole thing with the Olympics (the Larry Nassar scandal). All of these women having to go through this and then having the courage and the opportunity to say 'This is what happened to me,'" he said.
Kester said he sees protecting children as the United States' most important responsibility and hopes the play inspires public officials to take action.
"It's really important that cities and towns and hospitals know and pay attention to it and not just say 'We have no power.' It's not true. You do have power,'" he said.
To both Kester and Niklas, an emotional, well-done theatrical performance or an inspiring story can be a potent force.
Kester vividly remembers witnessing a man weeping at intermission during a performance of "Death of a Salesman" and proclaiming "This is me. This is about me." Niklas tells a story of an elderly woman connecting with her story during an inspirational speech at St. Cyril's Church and deciding to open up about the abuse she once endured after keeping it secret for decades.
And through the one-woman show, Niklas and Kester hope audience members feel personal moments of catharsis.
"It really changes your life," Kester said.