The Girls Next Door

A sunny love affair, a brutal attack — and a step toward understanding.

One of the functions of the drama over the last hundred years has been the demystification of minority figures for the benefit of a majority audience. For Christian spectators, the denizens of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing were a window to Jewish family life, and for many whites, the African-American characters of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun were an introduction to black life outside all the stereotypes. In our own time, the theater has shed new light on the lives of gays and lesbians: plays like Torch Song Trilogy, March of the Falsettos and Love! Valour! Compassion! have demonstrated to the majority culture that its two-dimensional images of homosexuals can't stand up next to a much more complicated — and recognizable — reality. As the impact of the recent film Brokeback Mountain has shown, this work is hardly over; there are still lots of heterosexuals for whom the existence of gays is a continuing revelation, and for whom a love story like the one in Brokeback is as astonishing and exotic as Star Wars. Not that there's anything wrong with that — the only losers amidst all this excitement are ignorance and prejudice, and the subconscious notion of a sub-human Other. It's enough to make one wonder whether Sir Philip Sidney wasn't right when he said, more than 400 years ago, that the value of art was its capacity for moral education.

Which leads me to the subject of Diana Son's Stop Kiss, the play currently showing at Gorilla Theatre in a Stageworks/Gorilla co-production. This clever, ingratiating drama wants us to feel as sharply as possible the distance between a bigot's picture of lesbianism and the genuine, deeply felt love between two women. So it interweaves two stories: the developing friendship and love felt by the protagonists Callie and Sara, and the aftermath — at a police station and a hospital — of a brutal gay-bashing assault. Jumping in time from one story to the next and then back to the first, Son never confuses us and always keeps us in suspense; for half the play we're curious to see how these two apparently straight women will become lovers, and during the other half we wait anxiously to see whether the victim of the gay-bashing will recover. Meanwhile we get to know the two heroines, as well as subsidiary characters such as the detective who's investigating the assault, the woman who called the police, and even a nurse whose job is to bathe the speechless, motionless victim. There's not a cliché anywhere in the drama, the characters are likable and far from extreme, and the progress of events — on both sides of the story — is almost entirely credible. There's hardly a line worth repeating, but maybe Son feels that our identification with Callie and Sara depends on our finding them ordinary, even in language.

And I certainly won't complain about most constituent parts of this beautiful production. On R. T. Williams' attractive set of a small Manhattan apartment (one of the best I've ever seen in the small Gorilla space), Brittany McLaughlin as Callie and Aisha Duran as Sara easily win our sympathy and our concern. There's nothing shadowy about these women, no subterranean, murky depths; they're the girls next door, or your sisters, or you. In fact, they're so sincere and sunny, it's hard to believe in the one argument the playwright gives them; since when did a rainstorm come from a clear blue sky? The other actors are just as convincing: as Callie's sometime lover George, Drew DeCaro is good-natured, reliably horny and a strong shoulder to cry on; and as the Detective who works away at Callie's half-truths, Ward Smith is patient, a little edgy, and nicely unflappable. Lynne Locher as Mrs. Winsley — she threw some flowerpots at the assailant and called 911 — is endearingly well-centered, and Dawn Truax as Sara's Nurse seems as complete a human person as was ever given so very few lines. Jonathan Cho as Peter is confusing, though; I still can't decide just what his relationship to Sara is supposed to be, and his anger in a hospital waiting room seems unearned. But Loren Shaw's costumes are in every case felicitous, and John Burchett's lighting surpasses stark realism to help us focus on the character who most deserves our attention.

And then there's Kerry Glamsch's direction. Glamsch's staging last year of Finer Noble Gases at TheatreUSF was one of the highlights of the season, but Gases is a play that highlights the bizarre, and Kiss, as I've noted, is just the opposite: insistently real. Well, the good news is, Glamsch is superb this time out also. His contribution is most notable in the harmony of effects, the way the lighting and the music and the acting all work together to suggest a single inspiration rather than a conflict of separate visions. It's hard to sense some directors' work — who deserves the credit for a fine performance, or for impressive design work? — but there's a feel to Stop Kiss, as if a single organizing intelligence is at work in all its aspects. I continue to believe that Glamsch is one of the Bay area's very best directors, and I hope to have many more opportunities to discover the magnitude of his talent.

Anyway, this show is worth seeing, unpretentiously entertaining as it makes its claim on our consciences. Watch it with that friend who still makes jokes about lesbians, or with that family member who refused to see Brokeback Mountain.

From the days of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the theater's been involved in our moral education. Stop Kiss is another step in the same direction. And that's just one of the reasons to see this luminous production.

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