The Moral of the Story
Sometimes theater seems very much a Victorian institution. Perhaps performances should still be advertised by a hand-painted shingle reading: Meant for the Moral Edification of the General Population. These being more progressive times, rather than mounting melodramas about destitute naifs who must choose between starving to death and stealing loaves of bread, the theater instead takes up noble pleas for tolerance. The Eye of the Storm's Stop Kiss is an example: In a split narrative structure, it simultaneously tells of a budding romance between two young women in Manhattan and the tragic results of a gay-bashing they suffer after their first kiss. The attacker is a shadowy figure, never seen in the play, and he hulks out of the darkness like the runaway carriage that propelled the plot of so many Victorian stories, running down one of the leads without warning as though she were a blind little match girl in the street.
Although Stop Kiss is a meticulously restrained piece of theater (it pulls back every time it seems about to descend into weepy hand-wringing), there is a moral to this story, and it could not be stated more clearly had the cast turned at the end of the play and declaimed the message to the audience. The moral is a little puzzling, but here it is: Any woman is potentially a lesbian, and therefore, in these intolerant times, any woman is potentially a victim of gay-bashing. Playwright Diana Son has given her two main characters no previous history of homosexuality. Played by Jennifer Blagen and Larissa Paige Kokernot in this production (both of whom bring a great deal of sprightliness to their performances; the play's one great strength is its two charming leads), Son's characters begin the play having come out of long, vaguely unsatisfying heterosexual romances. But for a videotape of Orlando that set designer Nayna Ramey has cleverly hidden on the stage (see if you can find it!), there is no indication that these women might have Sapphic interests--no erotica by Pat Califia hidden under the bed. At one point, Blagen's character hints that she goes dancing at gay bars, but she also intimates that she does so with a group of female friends from work in order to avoid getting hit on--hardly an unusual straight-girl activity.
Nonetheless, the two female leads fall for each other, and it is a charming romance. Both Blagen and Kokernot spend the play grinning and tripping lightly through the script's pleasing comic banter. They seem perplexed and excited by their growing attachment, but (in another example of the play's restraint) they simply accept it as being normal. At one point they discuss the notion that sooner or later every woman feels this way--though what exactly they feel is not clear in the play. Perhaps they have suddenly realized that they are lesbian separatists. Or perhaps they are simply bi-curious. We will never know, it seems, as they do nothing to tip us off, such as rushing out to a bookstore to pick up Loraine Hutchins's Bi Any Other Name. Neither do they visibly struggle with their newly found (or perhaps newly acted-upon) desires. No, they accept their shift in sexual interest with a sort of equanimity that one typically only finds in porn films, in which two women cannot be alone in a room together without their panties ending up hanging from the light fixtures.
The point of this play, however, is not to craft a realistic story about the woo pitched by two girls in love or the confusion it creates. This would have been messy and hard to tell--a morass of tricky and complicated emotions followed, after the tragic late-night assault, by the nightmare of becoming the center of a media storm. But the emotions of Stop Kiss never grow to be particularly complicated, the media storm dissipates as soon as it serves its dramatic function, and the play makes its point without the troubling weight of confusion or doubt lingering in the background. But then the Victorians never really cared either if it made sense that the feverish children who populated their stages made comforting comments to their parents and then died happy. Why let the ugliness of real life interfere with a good bit of moralizing?
If you're looking for unrestrained moral edification, look to Theatre in the Round, whose production of a rather creaky classic called Dark of the Moon makes the point that backwoods Christians--left to their own devices--can go quite nutty. The play is based on a Smoky Mountain folk song about a witch who becomes human (played by the stalwart Don Eitel) and the woman who betrays him (Tammy Shanley, playing the role as a sort of feral mountain girl). The characters in this show have the unique disadvantage of knowing the song (they sing it early on), so they know everything will end badly. When certain tragic plot points come up, you can almost see the characters humming the song to remind themselves where they are in the narrative--and for a play written in 1945, that seems an unusually postmodernist approach to theater.
This is a script that could have been created by a folklorist with a fascination for backward country folk, and this production shares that interest: Its best scenes look like documentary films of rural hootenannies. But the play also has a deep suspicion of its characters' superstitions and their tent-revival type of Christianity. The play's climax, in which the townsfolk transform into a savage mob at the insistence of their preachers, is legitimately harrowing, but one must wonder: Were this play set in a suburban Protestant congregation, would the playwrights have been as ready to make Christianity seem like such savagery?
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.