Who can predict what will happen the moment after a first kiss? Those tender, uncertain seconds can reveal worlds about the heart you’ve just touched. But they can also reveal the secret heart of the world around you — an unnerving notion at the core of Diana Son’s gentle, intelligent 1998 drama.
Directed with care and command by actress Holly Twyford, in her directorial debut, Son’s drama glides from past to present and back again over a series of evenings in a New York apartment, as good friends Callie (Rachel Zampelli) and Sara (Alyssa Wilmoth) realize in fits and starts that their desire to get close might be more than just friendship.
The fumbling courtship Son has crafted for our two heroines pans out over a series of touching scenes in which Zampelli and Wilmoth, performing with great skill and humor, uncover their mutual attraction from a series of subtle moments. The purity of these discoveries is so wholly felt — rarely do we see two romantic leads so charmingly oblivious to the possibility of love — that the consequences hit us hard in our seats. Spotted in a park late at night during their first kiss, Callie and Sara are singled out, mocked, and assaulted. The proceeding events pulse with a potent combo of crime drama inquiries (personified by Howard Wahlberg as a compassionate cop), comic romance, and flashes of suspense. Under Twyford’s hand, it all knits together into a lucky little gem of a tale, both hardened and smooth to the touch.
The attack, which sends Sara into a coma, is particularly haunting for never being shown onstage. But the shockwaves are steep, and we ride them up and down on a rippling loop. Sara moves into and out of a hospital bed, constantly losing and re-gaining her power to move and speak. Callie, too, walks a jagged track to grief, falls backward to hopefulness, and forward to grief again. Playing hopscotch over linear time ain’t easy, and with a scene partner comatose for half the show, the emotional brunt falls mainly on Zampelli’s shoulders. A lesser actress might wander a path more maudlin, but Zampelli shows fierceness and dedicated detail work, putting real muscle into every moment even as Callie’s half-healed wounds and softer edges hold most of our focus.
A fair amount of the talk surrounding this Stop Kiss, perhaps fairly, has been of Holly Twyford’s decision to helm the project, made even more interesting by the fact that she played Sara herself at Woolly Mammoth in 2000.
While the No Rules production offers no large surprises or revelations about the core of Son’s play, it does indeed showcase Twyford’s confident grasp of how to bring it to the stage. Not surprisingly, the focus here has gone into the acting. Elements of design are executed with straightforward ease, in fairly standard arrangement. What impresses are the performances, and the cast of six — also featuring Ro Boddie, Karin Rosnizeck, and Jonathan Lee Taylor — prove smart and careful throughout.
In moments of calm, the chemistry simmers at high levels, and in conversations more barbed the cast hits their marks with precision and heat.
But it’s Zampelli and Wilmoth who are charged with carrying the show, who must convince us that Callie and Sara are both committed and curious, platonic friends but possibly something more. We wouldn’t believe the latter without the former. Thankfully, we follow at every moment. With Callie’s help we see Sara, an earnest Midwestern girl on fellowship to teach public school students, start to grow her thicker, urban skin. And with Sara’s help we see Callie, a savvy TV traffic reporter, start to spot the holes in her grand plan to just get by and to think courageously about her coming years. The in-between moments, particularly a giddily tense flirtation scene on Callie’s foldaway bed, are truly touching and exciting.
Performed 13 years after its debut, the play also hints at a different era in New York, two Presidents ago and three years before this month’s national tragedy, in which the alleyways were just a little darker, and details of life among the city’s gay citizens weren’t aired quite as safely, with as much nonchalance. Twyford’s production doesn’t give us much of a sense of New York from any angle, either in design or in the scene-work. But for such a warmhearted story, proven relevant again in 2011, maybe it’s all right to attempt to shut the windows on the bustle and wail of everyday life. We may never be completely safe from scorn, but tucked away in Callie’s expansive apartment, we know we’re somewhere special.
Written by Diana Son
Directed by Holly Twyford
Produced by No Rules Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 100 minutes without intermission