With their second production, Free Spirit Theatre takes on a modern standard of the LGBTQ theatrical cannon: Dianna Son's, Stop Kiss. The performances here are earnest, the story compassionate, and the production well staged, though the play itself, (now in its 20th year) has begun to show signs of aging. If theatre is partly a mirror for society, then this heart-wrenching story centered around the budding relationship between two women and the subsequent violence committed against them, at times asks us to linger on reflections that, hopefully as a culture, we may have begun to outgrow.
Free Spirit's Artistic Director Jill Bergeron helms the production with clarity and empathy, navigating the play's dueling narratives of time and place with the poise of a seasoned dramatist. Her staging makes solid use of the space at Modern Studio, and her incorporation of a large projection screen to establish setting is an effective, though occasionally redundant device. She keeps the action moving, with vitality and more humor than I anticipated, while reserving several moments for silence and contemplation.
The performers come to the stage with a range of experience levels, and sometimes this disparity is more apparent than others, but never so much as to detract from the night's overall enjoyment, because at the height of the production's most emotional moments everyone shines with passion and honesty. Ashely Lodge delivers a subtle, thoughtful, and at times vulnerable portrayal of Callie, the pragmatic New Yorker whose struggle with her own passive nature forms one of the central conflicts of the piece. Lodge maintains an exceptionally confident emotional footing even as the script flits across scenes that take Callie from emergency wards, to giddy first dates, to police stations and back again sometimes all within a few pages of each other. Opposite Lodge is Madison Mansouri as Sara, the fresh faced Cincinnati school teacher recently transplanted to the Big Apple, and Callie's slow-burning love interest. Mansouri is well cast and charming in her wide-eyed and uninhibited portrayal. Her Sara is assertive yet kind, generous and funny, all of which make her injuries even more difficult for us to witness. The two ladies work well together as they navigate the month's-long narrative, and the resulting portrait is one of a living relationship: full of humor, frustration, tragedy, and ultimately communion. Completing the principal cast is George, Callie's longtime friend and occasional fling played by Ivan Perez who deserves mention here for one powerful scene in particular where he erupts with an unexpected outpouring of emotional concern for Callie.
Bergeron's set design succeeds in balancing the needs of the play with the realities of the space. She does admirable job incorporating five separate locations onto Modern Studio's two level thrust. Gary Bergeron's aforementioned projections were an especially nice touch, and the lighting design, while intentionally unobtrusive, still aided in subtly deepening the emotional work being done on stage.
As I said at the top (and those in the LGBTQIA community may tell me I'm completely wrong about this) my chief resistance to Stop Kiss is that it seems a bit stuck in the past. While it's true that the underlying love story is universal, the specific social injustices being highlighted seemed like they would have been of greater concern a quarter century ago than they are today. That's not to say that there isn't still a need to talk about those issues, but I feel like some situations that the show depicts as being edgy and controversial have been (thankfully) moved closer to the center of the social conversation, and therefor lose some of their narrative electricity.
So, then perhaps as social activism the piece has lost something with time, but that does not change the fact that Free Spirit Theatre's production definitely succeeds in building an intimate portrayal of two beautiful individuals and bringing us into a world filled with potential for heartbreak, danger, and violence as much as for empathy, courage, and joy.
If you'd like to share your thoughts about this production please feel free to leave a comment below!
-- JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club. Their newest original production, The Story Story opens March 8 at Modern Studio.Learn more here.
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