Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Actually recounts a night when at Princeton University freshmen Amber and Tom hooked up at a party. Tom is an African-American student who likes to play the field and Amber is a white, Jewish girl from a somewhat wealthy family who is not sure if Thomas is truly attracted to her or if he's simply using her. They end up leaving the party and going back to Tom's room to spend the night together. What happened next is very fuzzy as they had both consumed a lot of alcohol.
The morning after their night together, Tom is relieved to see a used condom lying on the floor, which makes him believe the night they spent together was not only enjoyable and consensual but also done with safety in mind, even if he can't remember all of the details. However, Amber has a different recollection of the evening and when she casually mentions to a fellow student that she thinks she was actually raped, it quickly escalates into a full-blown college investigation.
In order to protect both students, the college must adhere to certain standards established by the Department of Education and hold a hearing where both sides offer testimony. A small, impartial panel must make a decision based on which side offers the most convincing proof and account of the events according to the "preponderance of the evidence," which means "fifty percent plus a feather." This means the panel only needs to believe one side a minuscule amount more than the other. The "he said, she said" testimony we witness makes it even more challenging to determine the truth because, if they were both drunk and can't remember the exact details of what happened, was the sex they had consensual or was it rape?
Like she showed in her play Photograph 51, which Southwest Shakespeare premiered locally two seasons back, Ziegler has a clear sense of how to make a situation such as the discovery of the structure of DNA in Photograph 51 or a rape trial between two college students both riveting and theatrical. She also has a keen ear for appropriate and realistic dialogue. In the case of Actually, she uses overlapping monologues, flashbacks, and shifts of time to give us a deeper understanding of the thoughts and experiences of her two characters. As they talk about events in their pasts and recollect what they remember about the night they spent together, the play resembles a tennis match in which the opponents provide facts and life experiences that make them both appear to be believable. By volleying bits and pieces of testimony back and forth, it forces us to determine who we believe is telling the truth, though, as written, I do feel the audience can side more with Tom than Amber.
Ziegler also poses interesting questions that tie into our internalized prejudices of gender, race and religion, and how they specifically relate to a sexual misconduct case between a black man and a white, Jewish woman. The playwright also adds interesting comments from the two individuals such as, "How do you defend yourself? Is it what you say or how you say it?," bringing forth a consideration of how words may trump facts and the notion that, even though the jury is supposed to be impartial, many may have made their minds up about who is telling the truth even before hearing any testimony.
Under Rosemary Close's superb direction, Elizabeth Broeder and Raphael Hamilton are both excellent as Amber and Tom, delivering well thought out, three-dimensional, and clearly defined portrayals. Broeder's fast-paced delivery comes across as a realistic stream of consciousness. It perfectly lets the audience see how Amber is talkative, yet nervous and awkward, and how she uses words and non-stop speech as her shield to keep at bay any awkward moments of silence and to make her look more interesting than she believes she is. We also see in her beautifully delivered monologues the pain Amber has beneath the surface and her hope that Tom actually cares for her. Hamilton expertly shows us how Tom is full of confidence while also being somewhat cocky. He is a man who cares deeply for his single mother and has a profound passion for music, playing the piano, and the pursuit of women. But he also knows what challenges he is up against as a young black man at a prestigious college and how those challenges only get more difficult when he's faced with the rape charge. Through Hamilton's natural performance, we also see Tom's determination and conviction.
Was Amber too drunk to give meaningful consent? Does every part of a sexual act have to be prefaced with a question that gets either a "yes" or "no" response before it can proceed? In the well-crafted script and the beautifully acted portrayals in iTheatre Collaborative's production, both characters seem to be telling the truth, but the truth is very murky. The audience is faced with the challenge of deciding whether a rape took place, even if, under these circumstances, the question is almost impossible to answer.
iTheatre Collaborative's Actually runs through September 21, 2019, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E Monroe St., Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, call 602-252-8497 or visit www.itheatreaz.org.
Written by Anna Ziegler