Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut
Hartford, CT - Consent and truth. What do these words mean to two people who recently met, went to a party, have sex afterward, and then one of them accuses the other of rape?
In her play, “Actually,” playing through June 23 as part of TheaterWorks Hartford’s residency at The Wadsworth Atheneum, Anna Ziegler attempts to challenge our assumptions of consent by making us look at the social, racial, and gender politics that arise when a night of irresponsible behavior ends with two young Princeton students in bed. The next morning, something has happened that will change both their lives forever.
When Amber (Arielle Siegel) returns to her dorm room after her night with Tom (Ronald Emile), she reconsiders what happened. After offering her roommate a feeling of uncertainty of the events, word gets out and a hearing is held to discuss whether or not Tom raped Amber.
Amber and Tom’s stories are told each from their perspective. Amber is a Jewish girl who has had several bad encounters with boys before in her life and Tom is African American who comes from a broken home and has several disturbing incidents happen to him just before he meets up with Amber.
Ziegler does an excellent job of keeping the two’s arguments as balanced as possible. Both are sympathetic in their defenses and the play’s conclusion is left ambiguous.
The details are complex enough that it would be difficult to go into any detail without either spoiling the ending or potentially swaying your opinion before you see it.
There are hints throughout the text, though, that indicate that either story can be true and that the other one is lying. It is up to the audience to pick up on these nuances and determine for themselves who is the honest person.
In light of the #metoo movement and the upcoming 30th anniversary of the convictions of the Central Park 5, “Actually” gives the audience the opportunity to turn the mirror on ourselves and evaluate our prejudices. When the lights go out at the end of the show and you decide who was telling the truth, the important question isn’t who is right, but why did you choose that person? That is what makes “Actually” so important.
Though “Actually” is a brilliantly conceived play, there are a few detailed flaws that Ziegler misses, particularly one paramount question to a witness that doesn’t get heard, leaving a gaping plot hole in the narrative.
Also, there are times, particularly early on, when juggling the arguments feels more important than the characters. This causes moments of frustration because I wanted to be more invested in the characters than the logistics of the timeline and events. This ultimately rectifies itself later and Amber and Tom begin to develop much more clearly.
Siegel and Emile both do a good job, especially the second half of the play when the two drop their pretenses and begin to really bare their hearts.
Director Taneisha Duggan does an excellent job of keeping the two characters engaged with each other even though a lot of the play involves them being directed toward the audience, not to each other. When one speaks, the other isn’t just sitting on the side, but continuing their role as a point of reference to the other’s comments.
About midway through “Actually,” Tom speaks of the scales of justice and how this college hearing on sexual assault comes down to the weight of a feather to tip the scales to innocent or guilty. The metaphorical feather dangles upstage center the entire show waiting to drop in Jean Kim’s sparse but effective set.
The truth is, in a situation like this, true or false, right or wrong; neither person is the victor as both their lives are changed for the worse. As we make our own judgments from the audience though, it is fair to remember that we not only judge Amber and Tom, we judge ourselves. Even with the gaping plot issue and other narrative flaws, this is what great theater does; it challenges our view of not only the world, but of ourselves.
Theater: Wadsworth Atheneum
Location: 600 Main St., Hartford
Production: Written by Anna Ziegler; Directed by Taneisha Duggan; Set Design by Jean Kim; Costume Design by Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design by Amith A. Chandrashaker; Sound Design by Julian Evans
Show times: Evening: Tuesday and Wednesday 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday 8 p.m. Matinee: Saturday and Sunday 2:30 p.m. Schedule varies week to week.
Tickets: $25 to $70. Available online at www.theaterworkshartford.org, by phone at 860-527-7838, or at the box office.