BWW Review: ACTUALLY at Hartford Theaterworks
What starts off as a "he said, she said" recounting of what appears to be a simple hookup between two Princeton freshmen turns into something more penetrating and harrowing in playwright Anna Ziegler's powerful and jarring "Actually," which is now running at Hartford's Theaterworks through June 22.
Under the direction of Theaterwork's Producing Artistic Associate Taneisha Duggan, in her directorial debut at the theater, "Actually" proves to be an absorbing work that grips the audience's attention throughout its 90-intermissionless minutes. The play offers "of the moment" appeal as it explores issues of race, consent, judgment, identity, honesty and loneliness while offering no quick or easy answers.
When we first meet Amber, who is white, and Tom, who is black, as they amble across the essentially bare stage of the Aetna Theater at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum, they seem initially friendly both to each other and the audience. As they alternate in recounting the story, however, it becomes clear that sharing a perspective is impossible and each must try to explore and explain their specific alcohol-hazed recollections.
It proves not to be the easiest of tasks, as they try to sort through the backgrounds, baggage and character traits they brought to the encounter, revealing key misunderstandings, unspoken cues and not-totally-accurate expectations that contributed to a situation that grows darker as the play progresses.
Of course, playwright Ziegler is not one to put the issues in simple black and white. She initially paints Amber and Tom as appealingly as possible, then successively thwarts our reactions and sympathies by revealing crucial new information. The stakes are revealed to be serious and high. Amber is trying to establish an individual identity apart from a well-off but suffocating family, while Tom's athletic scholarship status has enabled him to be the first member of his family to go to college.
Duggan has obtained remarkable performances from her two-person cast. Arielle Siegel plays Amber as an intelligent, overly talkative, yet naïve young woman trying to function in a new whirling world filled with multiple points of view and possible behaviors that she is anxious to explore but unsure how to navigate. Siegel offers a young person still in formation, barraged by ideas and opinions, noticeably insecure, yet pre-programmed to please. Her eagerness to pursue this hookup is simultaneously tempered by unease, which Siegel portrays most believably. She genuinely breaks your heart and aggravates you at the same time when she gazes upon Tom later in the play and deeply sympathizes with his aloneness.
Ronald Emilie has the slightly showier role as Tom, as the young actor conveys the suave, street-cred that his character uses to impress Amber. While Emilie is both fluid and nimble, as befitting an athlete, there is a certain tentativeness to his performance that supports the level of trauma and uncertainty that preceded his arrival on campus. For Emilie's Tom is also lonely and isolated, and still working through issues of masculinity and anger management that were much less complex in his previous life.
For a two hander that is mostly monologues and stunted recollections and despite a deceptively bare stage, director Duggan maintains an almost non-stop sense of motion. This is thanks in large part to Amith A. Chandrashaker's constantly changing lighting design which allows Duggan to employ silhouettes, pinpoint spotlights, and brash bursts of light to create atmospheric environments, intimate moments, and a growing sense of foreboding. Even Jean Kim's austere set includes a platform atop a short proscenium wide set of stairs which Duggan uses for action and to visually convey the varying power relationships between the characters.
Despite the deep and controversial issues involved, Ziegler's play is hardly hard going. Siegel and Emilie have moments of playfulness and there is quite a bit of humorous banter as the characters get to know each other. The levels of irony and contradiction as unintentionally expressed by the pair also generate some nervous laughter.
The real power of "Actually" is its ability to challenge the audience with its circling revelations that complicate an easy "Who's Right" and "Who's Wrong" scenario. We already know that there are no simplistic answers to such situations. As the two protagonists enter a university conference room for an administrative hearing, Ziegler's play reminds us of just how complex such incidents can get and just how difficult it can be to arrive at genuine justice.
"Actually" runs through June 23 at Hartford Theaterworks' temporary home at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford, CT. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$60 at 860.527.7838. theaterworkshartford.org