Aaron Bartz, Martha Neslen and Jessica Adam, left to right, star in Stop Kiss.
It’s one of the best on-stage screams I’ve heard in years. Callie, a frantic New York traffic reporter played by the talented Martha Neslen, has just unexpectedly embraced the object of her budding romantic interest, Sara (Jessica Adam). For lack of a better phrase, the two experience a moment with that hug. It comes, after all, at the end of an hour’s worth of awkward, comical courtship between two timid, first-time lesbians in Diana Son’s award-winning play, Stop Kiss, and once the sweet hold ends and Sara clumsily exits the apartment, Callie instinctively goes running to her couch, clutches a pillow to her face and cries out in giddy joy. What a magnificent muffled sound.
But then Callie does something sort of funny at the time: She catches herself, cuts the scream just a little short, pulls the pillow away and grasps for composure. With nothing more than a wag of her head and an audible “ahem,” Callie shakes the moment loose and regains a level of decorum. The audience laughs, the lights fade and on with the story we go.
I would have given anything to have more of that scream, but Son’s play doesn’t have time to wallow in the good stuff. The playwright offers glimpses of Callie and Sara’s adorable, slow evolvement from forced friendship to nascent love, but only enough to be called a good tease. Right from the start, her non-linear script—honored with the 1999 Obie Award—bounces back and forth in time from the women’s first meeting to the aftermath of a horrible act of violence inflicted upon Sara. Soon we learn that Sara, an aspiring schoolteacher new to the city, was the victim of a gay bashing by a male assailant who called her a “pussy-eating dyke” and alternately smashed her against a brick wall and his knee, leaving her in a coma. The story’s all over the 11 o’clock news and splashed on the front page. The good stuff becomes nothing more than a heartbreaking backdrop.
Son’s script thrives on pacing. Never sure of whether they’re being whipped ahead or tossed back into time, audience members can’t help but spend much of the play repeatedly asking how. How does such a heinous thing happen? How did Sara and Callie get to the point of being lovers, however new? How will Callie react to being thrust into the very public role of “lesbian traffic reporter whose girlfriend got beat up,” as all the media outlets have branded her? How will friends and family take all of this breaking news? How will Callie and Sara’s relationship survive, if at all? Son’s deftly written play works to address all of these poignant questions, peeling back answers one at a time, but the key is filling in each blank in a quick, flipbook sort of fashion.
And that’s where this University of Montana Drama/Dance production stumbles. Tempo is not director Deborah Voss’ friend. At the open dress rehearsal I attended, along with a mostly full house of students, agonizingly long pauses interrupted anything resembling flow. The only filler for the repeated dead air was sound designer Rob Bridges’ preciously crafted soundtrack consisting of the likes of Dido, Sarah McLachlan and other such breathy pop luminaries, each crooning about love, loss and perseverance. One or two well-placed ballads may have sufficed, but this was a veritable 90-minute Lilith Fair tribute. It may have been the only time in my life where the estimable—and in this case entirely out of place— Emmylou Harris sounded like an ill-used cliché.
Left fumbling on the stage during the majority of these extended music breaks is Neslen, who must execute approximately 200 costume changes—most of them in front of the audience. It’s one thing to portray a character as a manic New York fashionista, and another altogether to let the taking off and putting on of countless blouses undermine an otherwise important play.
With the absence of pacing, Son’s script loses all of its emotional thrust. In one especially telling sequence, the audience sees Callie enter Sara’s hospital room for the first time, only to break down in tears. Lights fade, female folk pop is queued, and what was almost a wordlessly impacting scene turns into a distracting race as Neslen dashes across the stage to change clothes. Again.
In times like these the audience isn’t asking how as much as why. There are so many worthwhile questions conjured up in Stop Kiss. In a community where members of the gay and lesbian community have been the victims of violent crime and where the lack of hate-crime laws has provoked justified outrage, Son’s play offers the promise of perspective, some sage artistic interpretation, even solace.
But I was never able to get there. So much of this production feels like a series of syncopated fits and starts. Feel-good moments are purposefully cut short, would-be instants of poignancy ungracefully hurried. And then nothing. It comes back to Callie’s joyous scream. Even when a moment of clarity arrives, in this case the unbridled recognition of new love, the actors are forced to shake it off and literally move on, only to shimmy into the next costume and wait for another song to fade out.
Stop Kiss continues at UM’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, March 1, and again March 4–8, at 7:30 PM. $11/$10 students and seniors.