February 21, 2018

Two Women Fall in Love, Face Intolerance in “Stop Kiss”; Theatre Intime Presents Diana Son’s Bittersweet Drama

“STOP KISS”: Performances are underway for “Stop Kiss.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Princeton University senior Regina Zeng, the play runs through February 24 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Sara (Rebecca Senatore, left) and Callie (Jessica Li) begin a friendship that develops into a relationship. (Photo by Erica Dugué)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Theatre Intime, whose talented cast and production team consist entirely of Princeton University students, is presenting Stop Kiss. In this drama by Korean-American playwright and screenwriter Diana Son, whose credits include episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, two 20-something women in 1990s New York gradually allow their platonic friendship to become a romantic relationship.

This relationship faces levels of intolerance ranging from violent to ambivalent. When one of the women is hospitalized after the couple is assaulted, the other finds herself being blamed by the patient’s ex-boyfriend, and is forced to listen as the incident is dispassionately reported by her colleagues in the media.

Nearly 20 years after its premiere, this 1998 drama remains uncomfortably relevant. Nevertheless, the heartrending scenes are leavened by warmth and humor in others. It is quite moving to watch the relationship between the two women develop; this is a credit both to the script and the thoughtful, multi-layered performances.

Now a senior in the Princeton English Department with a certificate through the Theater Department, director Regina Zeng discovered the play through a scene study course taken during her freshman year, with Professor Suzanne Agins.

“I loved the development of the emotional arcs of the two lead characters and how they must navigate their feelings for each other twice, both when they first become friends and after the attack,” Zeng writes in a press release.

The show’s structure plays a substantial role in developing this concept. Scenes that take place before the attack alternate with sequences in which the characters contend with its aftermath. This structure underscores the tension between intolerance and love.

Callie, a traffic reporter who is dissatisfied with her job, receives a visit from Sara, a woman from St. Louis. Sara is excited to have taken a position teaching third grade in the Bronx. Callie has agreed to board Sara’s cat Caesar, as Sara is “some friend of an old friend of someone I used to be friends [with].”

As she waits for Sara to bring the cat, Callie receives a call from her boyfriend George, reminding her that they are due to go out with friends. George suggests that Callie bring Sara along, but Callie demurs: “what if she’s some big dud and we all have a miserable time?” Callie promises to leave soon. After Sara arrives, however, the initial conversation between the women ends with Callie offering to show Sara around the neighborhood, and to let her hang out at the apartment — to visit Caesar.

The subsequent scene takes place in a hospital. We learn that Callie and Sara were attacked in a park in the West Village, at 4:15 in the morning. Callie’s injuries are comparatively minor, but Sara has fallen into a coma. Through Callie’s conversation with Detective Cole, the officer assigned to their case, we discover that the women had been at the White Horse Tavern, and that the assailant banged Sara’s head against a building after she defiantly told him to leave them alone.

When Stop Kiss opened at the Public Theater in December 1998, it was painfully topical. Two months earlier, Matthew Shepard was left to die after being attacked and tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. His death, along with that of James Byrd Jr. — an African American who was murdered by white supremacists in June that same year — led to the passage and signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. Shepard’s mother became an LGBTQ rights activist, establishing the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Back at the apartment, Sara tells Callie about an incident that happened after school. While walking with one of her students, Malik, from the school to a subway station, Sara had a lewd comment shouted at her by a bystander. The bystander desisted after Malik told him, “This is my teacher; watch your mouth.” Sara is embarrassed that her student had to stand up for her: “Freaking 8-year-old boy. I should be able to do that for myself.”

Callie’s answering machine picks up a call from George, who demands to know where she is, and tells her that he is at a bar with two other female companions. Sara offers to leave, but Callie chooses not to go to the bar. Instead, Callie invites Sara to stay for dinner.

At the hospital, Detective Cole questions Mrs. Winsley, a woman who witnessed the attack against Sara and Callie. Later, Callie meets Sara’s ex-boyfriend, Peter. Awkward small talk gives way to a verbal confrontation in which Peter blames Callie for the attack, and chastises her for being unable to protect Sara, with whom he still is in love. Neither he nor Sara’s parents wanted her to leave St. Louis.

Peter is determined to take care of Sara. He lovingly, if doggedly, reads to her. He clearly sees Callie as an interloper who came between Sara and the people she left behind in St. Louis. However, an observant nurse offers to teach Callie how to care for Sara.

Although Stop Kiss earned Diana Son — who happens not to be gay — a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award, she has said that she “set out to write a romantic, not sensational female relationship and that’s the spirit with which I wrote the play …. I’m more interested in how people are alike and not different. And that expands to ethnicity, gender, etc.”

Stop Kiss is specific to the LGBTQ community in that the central romantic relationship is between two women who are victims of a hate crime. However, the play also examines universal themes of love and family.

What makes Callie and Sara’s relationship particularly touching is the script’s awareness of the extent to which small, subtle gestures can be as important — if not more so — than sweeping dramatic ones. A beautiful example occurs when Sara picks up an award that Callie has won but carelessly tossed on the couch. Sara tenderly dusts it off, and places it on top of the refrigerator, where it is visible.

Equally universal is the play’s examination of the complications that arise when a relationship affects not only the romantic partners, but the other people in their lives. When Sara’s hospitalization results in the visit from her parents, and Peter, the definition of “family” becomes a central question. Opposing answers come from the attitudes of Peter, who is hostile to Callie, and from the understanding nurse.

The relationships between the characters are convincing because of the chemistry between the members of this student cast, who are as adept at using subtle body choices as they are at delivering their lines. The chemistry between Callie and Sara, while awkward at first, becomes comfortable. By contrast, the atmosphere palpably becomes edgier when George enters the apartment, or when Peter reads to Sara.

Jessica Li gives a nuanced performance as Callie, permitting her character to alternate between exuberance and tentativeness. Rebecca Senatore complements this; her Sara often is more confident and centered, despite the character’s initial reticence in verbally defending herself.

Katja Stroke-Adolphe is effective in her dual roles of Mrs. Winsley and the nurse. Also remarkable is Jackson Vail, who gives a steely performance as Peter. The cast is ably rounded out by Robert DeLuca as George, and Sean Toland as Detective Cole.

Zeng’s staging — aided by Wendy Ho’s set, which is a triptych — accentuates the juxtaposition of comfortable intimacy against the intrusion of the outside world.

At one side of the stage is a hospital bed. On the opposite side, a simple table and chair. Center stage is Callie’s cozy if cluttered apartment.

In tandem with Ho’s set, the lighting by Alexandra Palocz and Ricky Feig enhances the opposing moods of the play, particularly during the climatic scene in the park. The warmth of Callie’s apartment alternates with the frigidity of the surrounding locations: a police station, a restaurant, and a hospital room. The sound design by Abby Spare further establishes the settings, particularly the noisy apartment.

It is in Callie’s apartment that the friendship between the two women develops into love; it is their safe space. A park bench, on which they share their first kiss, is placed in front of Callie’s sofa. Despite the hostile assault that we know will ensue, it is exhilarating to see that together, the women have learned to make the city into their own place. It is a deft — arguably crucial — choice in staging the scene.

Stop Kiss is a bittersweet, empathetic, and at times humorous drama that rewards audiences for engaging with its examination of love in the face of intolerance. It is being given a fine production by Theatre Intime, whose cast and creative team demonstrate a great affinity for the show.

“Stop Kiss” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall through February 24. For tickets and information call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.