Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Actually
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Falsettos, As You Like It and benevolence and Renee's review of Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Potter Experience


Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Anna Ziegler's Actually is completely of the moment. It arrived just two years ago, with co-world premieres at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and Williamstown Theatre Festival followed by productions at Manhattan Theatre Club and numerous regional companies. It is currently being produced at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul. As political and Hollywood careers face ruin from claims of sexual violation, college athletic directors are under investigation for permissive standards regarding sexual predation by coaches or players, and the Catholic church is deluged with charges of turning a blind eye to decades of sexual misconduct, Ziegler has turned her lens back to two individuals with very specific backgrounds, young adults whose adolescent sexual experiences have led them to the night they found themselves in bed together, leading to one precise question: Was it consensual?

In 2012 Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company presented Ziegler's excellent play Photograph 51, the fact-based story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose major contribution to a Nobel Prize-winning scientific breakthrough in the 1950s is given short shrift by her male colleagues. That play portrays Franklin as being a victim of male chauvinism, with little room to question, even if she may have had a prickly personality. In Actually, Ziegler created two fictional characters, but gives every detail of their personality, their background, and their current concerns, down to their speech patterns and gestures, such that we feel as if the two are as authentic as if they were plucked from today's headlines.

Thomas Anthony (JuCoby Johnson) is an urban African-American freshman at Princeton, the first in his family to attend college. Amber Cohen (Miriam Schwartz) is Jewish, middle class, and also a Princeton freshman. Early on we see them together on a date, with Amber making it patently clear that sleeping with him before the night is through is on her mind. We see that Tom is on board with that idea. Fast forward a bit, and Tom is being called in to speak with the administrator in charge of Princeton's student conduct proceedings, and is shocked to learn that Amber has lodged a complaint. No small complaint: she alleges that he raped her.

Tom and Amber then narrate their separate stories, everything that led them to this juncture. Tom talks articulately about his childhood friends, the elite school he tested into where all his male friends were white, his absent father and his doting mother, his love for classical music, his roommate ("Princeton was so thoughtful, they gave me a black roommate") with whom he has nothing in common, his new best friend at school (those friendships formed the first weeks of living away from all you have ever known can last a lifetime), his earliest experiences having sex, and the fast life he has been living these first two months of college. He talks about the extra burden of being an African-American male, knowing he will be judged differently because of his race.

Amber speaks a mile a minute, veering into sidebars and decoupaging her narrative with excessive detail, as she describes childhood, her family, her insecurity about her appearance, the loss of her virginity (thankfully) before heading off to college, her off-the-rails drinking since arriving at Princeton, her college best friend, who is by all accounts "hot," therefore reinstating all of Amber's insecurities about herself. She and Tom each tell their version of noticing each other, their first encounter, and what led to the opening scene. They go beyond, both describing how they perceived what happened that night back in Tom's dorm room, what they wanted to say but didn't, and what they thought the other was thinking. They guide us through the hearing at which they both appear, where a determination will be made that will have profound experience on them both, likely to stay with them their entire lives.

Ziegler made a powerful dramatic choice by only presenting these two characters. Thankfully, she does not have her actors switch off, playing the parts of parents, teachers, childhood friends, college classmates, or university faculty. We come to know all of those people, but only as Tom and Amber perceive them, only by way of their unavoidably skewed perceptions. This leaves us with these two appealing eighteen-year olds, both exceedingly bright, promising as all get-out, who have stumbled into an arena of ethical uncertainty and ambivalent decision making, calling on them to discern between their own needs and feelings, and what is actually going on in the room, none of which their time on the squash team, at piano lessons, or at SAT prep sessions have prepared them for.

The play runs about 100 minutes without a break, and director Harry Waters Jr, maintains the rising tension as we learn more about the night in question and the day leading up to it. Through his sensitive handling of difficult material, we become invested in both Thomas and Amber's lives, and what at first seems like a clear case of right and wrong becomes ever murkier—just like real life.

I can't imagine two actors better matched. Miriam Schwartz, who is on a roll after knockout performances this season in Artistry's Awake and Sing! and Gremlin Theatre's The Father, disappears into her portrayal of Amber. She is totally authentic as the voice of a confused young woman with high aspirations but low self-regard. Her nature is summed up by her repeated tension between wanting something and not wanting it at the same time, and she expresses agonizing ambivalence over the forces unleashed by the claim she has lodged.

JuCoby Johnson is Ms. Schwartz' match every step of the way, expressing Tom's ease with himself, beneath which lies a sea of uncertainties about how he fits into this Ivy League world. When he describes arriving at Princeton alone at the start of school, no parent to drive him there, no one to take him shopping for that sticky stuff you use to put up posters without messing up the walls - he conveys both the pride and resentment that propel his course.

The deceptively simple set designed by Michael Hoover is made up of solid geometric blocks, graced with projected vines, to suggest the durable structure which encase evanescent notions of right and wrong. Michael Wangen's lighting design seamlessly shifts focus between Amber and Tom, and between the openness of collegiate life and the private realms of their attempts to understand themselves and all that is happening to them.

The word "actually" has a significant and chilling part to play in the course of events. It may determine the entire outcome, ironic as neither party can say with certainty what actually happened, only what they experienced. The uncertainty Ziegler has injected into her play challenges the audience and lifts Actually to a high level of dramatic achievement. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is to be thanked for bringing this powerful play to a Twin Cities stage, and congratulated on a pitch-perfect production, elevated by two sterling actors at the top of their game.

Actuallycontinues through March 10, 2019 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00.For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Playwright: Anna Ziegler; Director: Harry Waters, Jr.; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Lisa Imbryk; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Production Stage manager: Samson Perry; Rehearsal Stage Manager: Katie Sondrol.

Cast: JuCoby Johnson (Thomas Anthony), Schwartz (Amber Cohen).


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