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For any American woman who has experienced sexual assault—or endured a terrible experience akin to it—there will always be life before Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and life after it.
Listening to Ford’s emotional account of alleged assault at Brett Kavanaugh’s groping hands resurrected bad memories for many women. Whether you’ve been assaulted by a teenager struggling to thrust his penis through a one-piece bathing suit, or been held against your will by a drunk date, only able to break free after screaming and fleeing down a Metro escalator in panic mode, that lasting fear is real.
Ford’s testimony reverberated like earthquake tremors because she gave us a reason to reprocess men at their worst, and she explained why traumatic sexual experiences are so difficult to erase.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” the research scientist said, going on to place her prep school nightmare in the context of brain science. One has to hope that line long outlives jokes about P.J. and Squi.
Two landmark plays about sex and recollection that were written “B.C.” (Before Christine) are now running on area stages, and resonate even more in the after-Ford era. To be sure, the familial child abuse depicted in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive is far more disturbing than the college hook-up gone awry in Anna Ziegler’s Actually. But both plays validate the churning emotions that empathetic observers are feeling in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court confirmation.
So go see them.
At Round House Theatre, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, a D.C. actress with an uncanny ability to go from disheveled mess to glamorous, uses her full chameleon powers in the role of Li’l Bit, the protagonist and narrator of How I Learned to Drive. Vogel’s semi-autobiographical play about growing up in a dysfunctional Prince George’s County family took home the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. It was disturbing then to see a play about a young girl abused by her uncle from the age of 9 until, as a freshman in college, she develops the self-possession to reject him. The play remains troubling, but it laid the groundwork for more graphic dramas about abuse to follow. The time is right for Round House’s revival. After listening to Ford recount her own teenage horror, and the mix of shame and embarrassment she felt, it’s easier to empathize with Li’l Bit’s own conflicted reactions when she offers, as an adolescent, to meet with her uncle one-on-one once a week.
Male critics originally praised Vogel for presenting the uncle sympathetically. Dramaturgical notes in the Round House program caution against thinking he’s the center of the story. He’s not. But he is the center of a narrative that dominates Li’l Bit’s life for 10 years and haunts her for decades. That’s why he’s so dominant in the play. Peter O’Connor is well cast in the complex role of a PTSD-addled war veteran who takes advantage of his niece, and frankly, it helps that O’Connor is the only actor in the cast with limited local credits. He’s also nondescript: blandly attractive and slightly taller than average, with sandy hair. Audiences will find him tolerable and understand Li’l’ Bit’s reluctance to push away such a likeable guy. Of course she’d rather chat with him while he washes the dishes at family occasions, if her choice is “dry” or listen to running commentary on her developing breasts from Grandpa.
That said, she may already realize her uncle wants unhook her bra himself.
Li’l Bit’s relatives and classmates are played by three ensemble members identified as “chorus” members in the Greek tragedy sense of that word. Emily Townley, Craig Wallace, and Daven Ralston have fun with the ribald relations, delivering diversions like supporting characters in a Shakespearean comedy. (Incidentally, Townley just played one of those in Twelfth Night last year.)
The storytelling follows narrative arcs with varying chronologies under the clear direction of Amber Paige McGinnis. The script’s not perfect: At the play’s beginning, we’re told that in Li’l Bit’s family, people are nicknamed for their genitalia, hence “Uncle Peck” and her own moniker that supposed refers to the size of her vulva. It’s strange then that Townley, as Bit’s mother, later complains that she got knocked up as a teenager herself because no one told her “about the facts of life.” Perhaps she was confused by all the euphemisms?
McGinnis is helming a play on her largest stage yet, and deservedly so. She’s only misstepped by allowing too many characters to speak with a Southern accent. (Peck is from South Carolina, but there’s no reason for the rest of this Beltsville clan to have drawls.) This is a sparse staging, with an expansive white backdrop bisected horizontally. That slit seems odd until the final moments of the play, when all the conflicting narratives come together with devastating clarity.
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $36–$67. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.
Ambiguous sexual acts are the entire point of Actually, a play about what happens when a Princeton co-ed has second thoughts about sleeping with the hot guy from her Intro to Psychology class, and accuses him of rape in the aftermath. The play shares its he said/she said plot with Really, Really, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s powerful play about college, sex, and privilege that debuted at Signature Theatre a few years ago. But while that play focused more on questionable circumstances and colorful supporting characters, Actually is about the external review process—a Title IX investigation—and the internal review process for the only two characters onstage.
Actually is one of the best two-person plays I’ve seen in quite a long time. It premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club last year, and Theater J’s production (in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, while the D.C. JCC undergoes renovations) is one of seven stagings across the country this season.
The opening is deceptive; you may think you’ve seen this play before and/or think you’ve seen these somewhat stereotypical characters before.
Jaysen Wright plays Tom, a black scholarship student who credits his success to an elementary teacher who took an interest in him after his dad walked out. Sylvia Kates plays Amber, the neurotic daughter of an overbearing, overly critical mom (She said I was “pretty enough,” Amber recalls early on) married to a lawyer. Wright and Kates each spend the entire play on one half of the stage, either speaking in soliloquy, quoting unseen characters, or speaking to each other. The dialogue is rapid fire, too fast at first. But Ziegler has a master plan. As in How I Learned to Drive, the recollections unspool in threads, and it turns out there’s more substance to Amber’s fear of the freshman 15 and jokes about Jewish sleepaway camp than we first think.
“Thomas Anthony!” she says, enraptured by the name of the guy who asks her to get ice cream. Her! It’s to the credit of Kates, director Johanna Gruenhut and Ziegler that her enthusiasm never comes off as melodramatic zeal. For both characters, much more was at stake during the questionable encounter than the average Ivy League hook-up.
But Wright’s character never seems as fully realized, and that doesn’t seem to be his fault. He’s saddled with too many underprivileged black kid clichés, and the ending of this 90-minute keg party potboiler simmers a bit too long. Thankfully, as in How I Learned to Drive, there’s a flash of lucid symbolism at show’s end.
But it’s not only the stark, non-verbal resolutions that make both of these plays so satisfying: It’s that both explain why problematic sexual encounters are more than physical abuse. They are about what horrible moments end up indelible in the hippocampus, and the strength it takes to live with those memories.
1101 6th St. SW. $30–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.