Review by Kathleen Campion
Susannah Perkins’s mesmeric eyes capture you at the get-go. The entire production rests on her narrow shoulders. I’ve rarely seen an actor more perfectly cast nor a character more ideally realized. She puts you in her pocket, and it is up to her to decide when you leave the room.
The shoulders seem narrow because Perkins’s fifteen-year-old Grace struggles with more than her own rape.
Set in a high school world where none of the adults offer refuge—much less wisdom—Grace grabs redemption from the mists of time. A class discussion of Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women focuses her thinking. She infuses their story with her inclination to forgive. She argues that the Sabine women forgave the Romans for raping them, then married them. She infers that the Romans must have said they were sorry.
As Grace thrashes around looking for safe harbor, she’s battered with social conventions that contrive to make her feel she is crazy, that she is the problem. Playwright Michael Yates Crowley relies on a sort of scatter-shot spray of cultural references to rape — specifically, the not popular girl raped by BMOC, ruining their futures. She was asking for it. Wasn’t she drinking alcohol and wasn’t she out after dark with boys. The school authorities are in denial; the parents are absent; the legal system is venal; the experts on rape are both male and tone deaf; and the media? Rapacious in its own way.
The high school setting seems to invite cliché and caricature. The cacophony of all that social referencing plays like a good idea that’s been over-amplified, and some editing would be helpful. (I was surprised to learn that the current production — at an hour and 45 minutes — had already been trimmed from a two-hour version.)
All the distractions aside, we remain in Grace’s pocket. We want her to figure it out for us.
Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975) opens with the premise “[Rape is] nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” At the time, I thought proving that premise— “all men”…”all women” —something of a heavy lift — but by the end of the read, of course, she’d done it.
Playwright Michael Yates Crowley’s in her traces. He has a character — a policeman doing his rounds who encounters Grace one dark night and offers: “This is a free country, miss. We can’t force you to do anything. We just like to remind people that the best way to prevent crime is to have a healthy, low-level fear all the time.”
Rape, of course, is never about sex and always about power, dominance, and intimidation— always was, always will be. And it is the always of both Brownmiller’s powerful treatise and Crowley’s powerful play that leaves us stunned.
At the finale, when the dime drops, and Grace sees her own rape in the great sweep of all rape, it’s not comfort she gets, but clarity and rage. Ultimately, the weight of all of the rapes, ignored or denied from the beginning of time, come to rest on those narrow shoulders.
The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias — By Michael Yates Crowley; directed by Tyne Rafaeli
WITH: Jeff Biehl (The Lawyer, etc.), Alex Breaux (Bobby), Chas Carey (The News), Doug Harris (Jeff), Eva Kaminsky (The Guidance Counselor, etc.), Andy Lucien (The Teacher, etc.), Susannah Perkins (Grace), Jeena Yi (Monica).
Designed by Arnulfo Maldonado; costume by Asta Bennie Hostetter, Lighting by Barbara Samuels, stage manager Chris De Camillis, sound by Mikaal Sulaiman. Presented by the Playwrights Realm at the Duke, 229 W 42nd, Manhattan, through September 23. Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.