By Patrick Hurley
Falling in love is a powerful experience. And it is the exploration of what love means that is at the heart of Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, playing now at the Pasadena Playhouse. This exploration finds an unlikely pair of women in the throes and immediacy of love. Callie (Angela Lin) and Sara (Sharon Leal) meet each other through a mutual friend. They spark a friendship that turns into a close relationship that turns into something more. And it is in the very idea of “something more” where the dramatic universe of this plays resides.Sara, having just moved to New York from St. Louis, talks about a boyfriend she left behind, and Callie has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, George (John Sloane). This establishes these two women as being unlikely romantic partners. But this is not a play about sexual identity, nor is it one that wants to explore the coming-out process. It is a simple story about the immensely complicated nature of love, of relationships, and the complex manner in which we all find ourselves tangled.
That is the first of two stories that are being told. The second deals with a much more volatile social issue. Told in parallel timeframes, the story jumps back and forth from Sara and Callie’s budding romance, to the aftereffects of a vicious attack they suffered when a drunken bystander watched the two of them kiss. The latter takes place after the fact, and so the scenes move from Callie’s living room, where she and Sara spend a lot of time getting to know each other, to a police station and hospital where Sara lies in a coma, and Callie is left with the decision of what to do next. And as the two stories seem to be progressing toward each other, so too does the relationship between these two women.
What is remarkable about this play is that it doesn’t preach. It paints a story. This is not a piece decrying violence against women, and because of its refusal to be political that’s exactly what it becomes. It is, by its very nature, a piece decrying violence against women, which is a large canvas to paint. But it is through the artful storytelling of these two women that the large canvas gets whittled down to a manageable, and ultimately personal size. And its beauty lies therein, in its humanity.
This production is stunning. Production designer David F. Weiner has created a toweringly gorgeous set. Capturing the essence of New York in the three story brick buildings that have been recreated on stage was an unexpected element. This play might be inappropriate for so large a space. The intimacy of most of the scenes have to be somewhat lost to the balcony seats, but the massive sets actually helped draw the focus down to the actors. It gave, especially Callie’s living room scenes, a much more intimate feel.
Director Seema Sueko, really tries to keep most of the action as far downstage as she can, and for good reason. There is simply too much theater for this play. Using the large set was also helpful in keeping the action down, but the size of the set hinders the dramatic tension of the piece a few times. For example, there are too many blackouts. The blending of scenes work much better when they flow into each other. This is the very nature of theatricality, of the magic that can be conjured only in live performance. When maximizing on the theatrical elements of this play, the production soars. The moments when Callie moves from a police station scene to being back in her apartment with nothing but a change of lighting are exciting, and build tension. You can actually hear it in the reaction of the audience. The blackouts almost always decrease the tension in some way. However, Ms. Sueko controls many of the theatrical elements with a deft hand.
The small ensemble does a good job of never “playing” to a large audience. There are small moments that mean so much in this play, and is up to the actors to make sure that even the back row gets to see these. I’m not sure that will be the case for this production, but that is only because the honesty of the performances won’t allow it.
As Callie, Angela Lin does a fantastic job of shifting from scene to scene, and emotion to emotion. We see her internal struggle, we feel her panic, we understand her desire. She evokes us at every turn. Her monologue about the attack itself is harrowing. But her best moments are when she’s looking at Sara, no words needed. She is able, with only a look, to convey the passionate, exciting and inquisitive internal world of a person falling in love, and it is sublime.
Sharon Leal is wonderful as Sara. She is kind, funny, and warm. All the more upsetting when we see the result the attack has had on her. Ms. Leal is also able to simply and poignantly elucidate emotion without words. Ms. Leal and Ms. Lin are both very gifted at creating the internal worlds of their characters and sharing it with us as needed.
This play, though hindered slightly by the sheer size of the theater, is a beautiful statement about love. An intimate exploration of humanity. Disregarding the obvious questions, and using violence as a catalyst for compassion and understanding. It will make you think and laugh, it will move and enrage you. It will stay with you. The very last moment of this play, is one that we should be waiting for, though maybe we don’t know it, but it is also one that should stay with us forever.
By Diana Son
Directed by Seema Sueko
Now through November 30
Saturday 4PM & 8PM
Sunday 2PM & &7PM
39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena CA 91101