New Mexico Actors Lab's Stop Kiss starts out really awkward. When we first meet Callie (Tallis Rose) and Sara (Joey Beth Gilbert), they seem uncomfortable in their bodies, their conversation is choppy; it feels as if the actors are consciously acting, overly self-aware in their portrayals and reciting lines rather than saying them truly in character. I was surprised at first, because these are two actors with whose work I've become familiar and am always impressed by, and I wondered what was wrong this time that they felt so strange.
As the scene thawed and the two became more and more natural onstage and with each other, it occurred to me that perhaps they were still shaking off opening-weekend awkwardness—but I'm much more inclined to give these talented women the benefit of the doubt and offer that the off-the-mark oddness of the first scene was entirely affected. The two characters were awkward as hell around each other, not the actors. They meant it. It was correct.
Entering into this show by trusting the actors turns out to be the right way to go, because the rest of the 85-ish-minute production flies by in graceful narrative from a cast that a director could trust with virtually any story. By casting Rose and Gilbert, along with Vaughn Irving, Hania Stocker and Ann Roylance, director Barbara Hatch did herself and audiences right.
In Diana Son's 1998 play, Callie has lived in New York City for years, and Sara just moved there. They've somehow connected so that Callie can temporarily keep Sara's cat, as Sara can't have pets where she lives. The two obviously feel an instant inclination toward friendship, though there is something else strange in the way. (Of course, we learn quickly that it's attraction—but also, neither woman has ever really dated another woman, so they don't really know what to do with it or themselves.)
Throw in the complication of other lovers (George, played by Irving, a long-standing best-friend-with-benefits for Callie; and Peter, played by Stocker, Sara's boyfriend back in St. Louis whom she left in limbo to pursue a fellowship to teach in the Bronx) and the women's pre-relationship dance is a really nice portrayal of young people's struggle with love, commitment and comfort.
Especially effective was the way in which Callie deals with George's existence. There was no scandal in the relationship, as some more square production teams would likely encourage; it was entirely normal for her to share her bed with college friend who is nowhere even near a boyfriend. Even when Sara and George run into each other coming and going outside Callie's apartment, it's not that big a deal, and the three grab dinner and drinks together on the regular. The honest and realistic portrayal of non-monogamy, perhaps more a buzzword now than it was in 1998, brought a nice dose of realness to the stage.
The audience learns almost immediately that when Callie and Sara finally, after months of tension, share their first kiss, they are brutally assaulted by a homophobic bystander and Sara is sent into a coma. The play unfolds in a timeline that jumps back and forth from past to future to lay out the story bit by bit, piecemeal, a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow to its heartbreaking and poignant sorta-conclusion.
There is never a question of what time we are in, however, thanks both to a beeping sound cue that places us firmly in a hospital, and the expert body language of the actors (Rose having cracked a rib, Stocker playing a shitty NYPD detective in addition to heartsick Peter, and so on). It reminded me tangentially of The Last Five Years, wherein the conclusion of the play ties a wrenching story we've been picking up bit by bit into a nice little bow. Well, okay, not so nice, and maybe not a bow. But at least a solid, sturdy knot that we can take with us into the future and think about where, perhaps, these characters ended up.
The costuming is worth mentioning as a plot device; cast likely used their own street clothes for this show, but the cheer volume of them deserves a nod. Seemingly endless quick changes behind a portable screen and a different outfit for nearly every vignette (and it feels like there are dozens of vignettes) make for what I imagine was a huge laundry pile at the end of each weekend, but more importantly, the use of clothes in this one is handled effortlessly by Rose and Gilbert. The outfits we wear are the masks we cling to in hopes that no one will see who we actually are, and the women's constant talk of borrowing of clothes, changing clothes, complimenting each other's outfits—or, in one particularly hard-to-watch scene, criticizing the way one appears—took an incredible amount of physical and emotional work onstage, but paid off as an effective motif throughout.
And ultimately, I'd be remiss not to mention the overarching theme of this play: bigotry and its effects. Namely, homophobia and violence. Living in my straight-cis bubble in a city like Santa Fe, it's all too easy for me and people like me to say, "Well, this play was written in 1998; this doesn't happen as much any more." But, as director Hatch spells out in the director's note, it absolutely does. All day, every day, everywhere, and to thousands of people. Particularly with our country's current reinvigoration of fascism and the emboldening of bigots from coast to coast, it's particularly pertinent that we consider the questions raised elegantly and effectively by Stop Kiss.
After Sara is assaulted, Callie and George sit in Callie's apartment as she tries to process what has just happened to her world and to her friend. Finally, Callie says, seemingly anomalously: "Do you remember the first time we kissed?"
George doesn't. Of course, the implication is that Callie will never forget the first time she kissed Sara; further down the wormhole, heterosexual people probably have very little recollection of when they "admitted" they were attracted to the other gender. Why would they need to? It is a "normal" thing to do.
But homosexual, bisexual or otherwise queer people almost invariably have a different story. The realization of their "deviant" attractions is often a difficult and wrenching time. The first time they kiss someone of the same gender is a monumental occurrence. The admission of their reality is a massive door that sometimes needs to be dragged agonizingly open.
How much do people like me take for granted? This show laid it out bare: A lot.
Stop Kiss is a fantastic and real story told almost perfectly in Son's script, and Hatch and NMAL assembled just the right team to bring it vibrantly to life.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays July 18-27; 2 pm Sundays July 21 and 28. $25. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601; tickets here.