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Storytelling always trumps story. Lots of writers spin their tales in a nonlinear fashion to give their material a mystery it might otherwise lack, and shuffling the cards makes it harder to spot when one is missing.
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Diana Son’s Stop Kiss hopscotches, scene by scene, between two parallel sets of narrative tracks: one set before a shocking act of violence, the other in its harrowing aftermath. The first—the one that has an ending, more or less—is a slow-budding romance between two Manhattanites, Callie (Rachel Zampelli), a traffic reporter, and Sara (Alyssa Wilmoth), a newly transplanted schoolteacher from St. Louis. Neither woman thinks of herself as gay. Sara has left her boyfriend for a fellowship to teach in a public school in the Bronx, while Callie has a devoted friend-with-benefits in George, a good-natured bartender. The two ladies’ gradual recognition of their mutual attraction is the play’s most beautifully rendered element, and in No Rules Theatre Company’s new production, Zampelli and Wilmoth make us believe it. The best moment is a wordless one, wherein they briefly share a bed for the first (and actually, only) time. It’s a platonic arrangement, but we see Callie’s mind begin to entertain the possibility of something more intimate—and Sara shut it down just as quickly.
The scenes following Stop Kiss’ fulcrum——an assault that leaves Sara in a coma—are where you’d expect editorialization. Son, Zampelli, and Wilmoth are too good to let any didacticism creep in, but these moments are still less compelling. That said, Howard Wahlberg has a smart turn as a detective investigating the crime. Is he deconstructing Callie’s eyewitness account of the crime so skeptically because he wants as much information as he can extract to identify the perpetrator, or is there an edge of judgment in his voice? Or would that just be Callie’s discomfort with her new identity as a woman in love with a woman?
Really, everyone is good in this. One likely explanation is that the show marks the directing debut of Holly Twyford, one of D.C.’s most gifted and versatile actors; she played Sara in Stop Kiss’ Washington premiere at Woolly Mammoth in 2000. Besides stoking convincing work from her entire ensemble, she seems at ease with blocking, creating memorable stage pictures within Tony Cisek’s set. The audience is divided along two sides of H Street Playhouse’s black-box space, with various plots economically dressed as Callie’s apartment, Sara’s hospital room, and a table pulling double duty as a diner and an interview room at the police precinct.
Stop Kiss premiered in 1998. It’s rooted firmly in the Clinton era, as signaled by songs from Blind Melon, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Live, and Madonna. (Yeah, but it’s the Ray of Light album, from 1998.) There’s also a swipe at Rudy Giuliani. Presumably, the suggestion is that regardless of the degree of prejudice against gay couples that persists today, acceptance was still more elusive back then. By emphasizing the romance over the moral, Stop Kiss makes a coulda-been issue play feel universal. Personal is, how do you say, political.