BWW Review: One Says Consensual, The Other Says Rape in Anna Ziegler's ACTUALLY
Sex is sex and rape is rape. That's the cut and dry explanation we often hear nowadays. And while there are obvious instances where any reasonable person would determine that rape has occurred, there are also those instances that straddle the line between one and the other, where human subjectivity determines the label. Where, as demonstrated in Anna Ziegler's absorbing and thought-provoking new drama, ACTUALLY, one partner can be sure the sex was consensual and the other can be sure it was rape.
A preponderance of the evidence, as considered by a panel of three, is required to determine whether it was rape or sex that occurred one night on the Princeton University campus. If they believe the evidence presents no more than an even split of probability that a rape occurred, the accused is cleared of the charge. But if the slightest measure of evidence above 50% - a feather, as the playwright puts it - leans the probability towards rape, punishment is then determined.
The one-act, two-person piece begins and ends with a moment from Tom and Amber's second date, which leads to their first kiss. A significant difference in staging, one that Tom may not be completely aware of, clues the audience in on differences in Amber's emotional reaction to the moment.
In between, on a stage that's bare, save for two chairs, the pair takes turns individually addressing the audience, fluidly alternating between describing the intense pressure they both feel as Freshmen in their first semester, detailing their past experiences regarding sexual consent, talking about the events leading up to the night they spent together, describing what happened when they sat opposite each other answering questions from the panel, and occasionally acting out moments from their short dating relationship.
As directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha each offers a sympathetic and realistic portrait of a young adult who is both anxious for the opportunities of the future and overwhelmed by the demands of the present.
As an African-American, Tom has learned to always be extra careful of his actions, aware that the color of his skin means that someone is always watching for him to make the slightest mistake. His good looks and charm helped make him popular with high school girls, but also made him the target of a teacher's sexual advances, and he has grown uncomfortable with the kind of attention he attracts, particularly from a new male friend.
Amber is Jewish, and based on her remarks about the circumstances she believes makes it easier for people like Tom to get into Princeton, it can be assumed the author means for her to be white. Frazzled and talkative, with a self-depreciating sense of her own appearance, Amber's past sexual experiences have led her to be admittedly uncommunicative during intimate encounters and it takes the insistence of a friend to convince her that she has been raped by Tom.
As the audience gets to know Tom and Amber, there's a surprising amount of character-driven humor; the kind that deals with the normal anxieties of being out on your own for the first time, without ever undercutting the seriousness of the situation.
The author makes it clear that they were both aware that evening that they were both drunk, but the inability for either of them to express consent is never brought into question. More emphasis is placed on two moments where Amber's non-consent may or may not have been communicated, and when the two disagree on the truthfulness of what one says, they directly confront each other in an ugly exchange that's difficult to watch because so much compassion has been built for each of them.
Amber brings up several times her interest in the pratfall effect, defined by her psychology textbook as the reason people are more attracted to those who are flawed than those who are seen as perfect. While both she and Tom can be seen as completely credible in presenting their side of the story, there are also flaws in each other's claims, The matter turns especially heartbreaking when Tom, knowing that he would never rape anyone, begins to see that his actions may, in fact, have been rape, and Amber, never 100% certain that Tom raped her, questions the validity of her own claim.
The major strength of Ziegler's storytelling is that she seems less concerned with having viewers take sides than she is with having us feel the mutual tragedy of the situation and be more concerned with discussing how such matters can be prevented.