by Gail M. Burns
Two first-year students at Princeton, Thomas Anthony (Joshua Boone) and Amber Cohen (Alexandra Socha). Thomas is black and a talented piano player. Amber is a white and Jewish, and a bundle of conflicting ambitions and desires. Both are eighteen. Legally, they are adults, but as we listen to the stories they tell in Anna Ziegler’s beautifully crafted Actually, now on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it is apparent that they are only on the very verge of adulthood, still teetering on the last crumbling precipice of their adolescence. So do we call them a man and a woman, or a boy and a girl? While the play deals with a very serious adult matter, I feel called to use the latter nomenclature.
The early weeks of college that they describe are both familiar – the sheer terror at being uprooted from the life you have known, the academic demands, the realization that this is your chance to remake yourself but you don’t know who you were, let alone who you might want to be – and shocking different to an old duffer like me – the expectation that you will drink heavily and engage in endless casual sex, even if that isn’t remotely who you are, and living in the endless fishbowl that is the current state of social media.
Existing simultaneously with the expectation that you will be drink heavily AND be wildly sexually active is the hyper-vigilance surrounding issues of consent. If one or both parties are seriously intoxicated – and that is when most instances of rape and sexual assault occur – consent, or even consciousness, can be questionable, and memories of the event fragmented or non-existent.
Tom and Amber are very attracted to each other. Ziegler makes that clear and also the reasons why that is so. Based on that, their coming together should be the start of at least a life-long friendship if not a memorable fling or genuine romance. Instead, because of words, or the lack of them, they find themselves across the table from one another at a hearing to determine if Tom raped Amber. It isn’t even Christmas break of their freshman year.
Ziegler begins at the start of that ill-fated evening, then loops back around to times before and after in an intricate but never confusing cats-cradle that allows Tom and Amber to tell their stories in great detail. Not just the story of them together, but the stories of how they became the people they were that night, and are on the day of the hearing.
A great deal is at stake for Tom, a first generation college student who has opened many doors for himself with his talent and intelligence, and also with his good looks and charm. A decision against him will mean the end of all that a Princeton degree would grant him in life. But at stake also is Tom and Amber as a couple, and the loss of what they both know could have been a life-changing relationship. Amber has almost nothing to lose at the hearing, but in a way she has already lost everything.
Socha and Boone are skilled actors and perfectly cast. Another important trope in Ziegler’s story is bodies, a point subtly enhanced by Paloma Young’s modest and versatile costume for each actor. At 18 our adult bodies are as new and perplexing as our roiling emotions, desires, and ambitions. Boone embodies both the physical strength and emotional tenderness of Tom, while Socha’s tiny frame twists into pretzels of insecurity. Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’ direction the technical weaknesses of this production are largely mitigated by the riveting performances and Ziegler’s incisive use of language.
In Adam Rigg’s set deisgn there is nothing on the stage but the actors and two chairs with bright red seats. There is some faux wood paneling along the back wall of the stage acting as a poor man’s stand in for the kind of somber academic spaces one finds at illustrious Ivy League colleges and universities. Although Williams is not Ivy League one wonders why the WTF didn’t ask permission of the college to stage this show in the authentic surroundings of Chapin Hall or Stetson.
The lack of genuine academic ambience leaves Ben Stanton’s lighting design to fill us in on the changing times and spaces of the stories. I confess that at times I thought I understood what the lighting changes were telling me, and other times I was hopelessly lost and decided to ignore them. The only clear signal was the deep red light that bathed the stage during moments of true passion.
There was background noise/music, and most of the time I was unclear whether it was intentional in Jane Shaw’s sound design, or if we were hearing ambient sound from the adjacent MainStage where the musical A Legendary Romance is on the boards.
While the extent of Tom and Amber’s onstage physical contact is a kiss, Ziegler’s script is appropriately graphic as these two young people speak about their bodies, their early sexual experiences, and the encounter under scrutiny. So this play is not for people who don’t enjoy hearing such details spoken out loud. There is also a generation gap here. Boomers, while we came of age at the height of the sexual revolution, don’t use the same language to talk about intimacy that millennials use. For this and many other reasons Actually will resonate strongly with young audiences, which is a wonderful thing.
There is already considerable buzz about this play generated by its May/June run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, which is co-producing world premiere with the WTF, albeit with a different cast and director. Actually is already set for a New York run at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II, with previews beginning October 31, and opening night scheduled for November 14. Blain-Cruz will direct again at MTC, but no cast has been announced yet.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Actually by Anna Ziegler, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz runs August 9-20, 2017, on the Nikos Stage in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street in Williamstown, MA. Production Stage Manager Dane Urban, set design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Ben Stanton, and sound design by Jane Shaw. CAST: Alexandra Socha as Amber Cohen, and Joshua Boone as Anthony Thomas. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets may be purchased online, by phone, or in person at the Box Office located at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance Box Office at 1000 Main St (Route 2), Williamstown, MA 01267, 413.458.3253.