by Michael Bowen
Despite the buzz, Stop Kiss isn't about gay-bashing. Instead, it's about our best reactions to anti-gay violence. The homophobic thug who beats one of the characters comatose never appears. He's relegated to the offstage, the obscene. Right where he belongs.
In contrast, Diana Son's play -- beautifully crafted, and at times, despite its subject matter, very funny -- centers on commitment, on bursting through self-imposed restraints, on the growth of affection into love. It's about the fear our narrow-minded society instills into those whose "offense" is loving another person.
This is, however, no strident lesbian tract in which sisterhood triumphs over the benighted heterosexual masses. Callie -- and to a lesser extent, Sara -- are hesitant in their overtures to one another. Neither of them has acted out her attraction to another woman before, and neither is sure she wants to. Callie, in particular, expends a lot of psychic energy in denial about her own nascent impulses. They fall in love slowly, haltingly, with trepidation. Though at great personal cost, each emerges transformed.
The triumph of the play is the triumph of Callie over the things she fears -- change of any kind, her own impulses, being rejected. She has a boyfriend who's sexually convenient, a rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment she's lived in forever, a job as a traffic reporter that serves no discernible purpose. She's in a rut, but it's a comfortable rut. And then Sara pops up in her life, upsetting preconceptions all along the way.
Playwright Son structures her play in alternating before-and-after scenes: we jump back and forth between the events leading up to the kiss and scenes detailing both Sara's medical recovery and Callie's psychological discoveries about her own capacity for love.
Callie's role in particular, therefore, calls for abrupt emotional transitions. Kate Vita handles them flawlessly, never better than when she has to change in a matter of seconds from being raucous at a party to being distraught in a hospital room just after the attack. Vita knows how to portray the unexpected growth of tenderness: in the early stages of her mutual flirtation with Sara, during a playful card game, she stares longingly at her new friend. Vita mixes fear and anticipation, her eyes widening in fascination even as she realizes the psychic and societal costs of falling into homosexual love. At first reluctant even to be seen in public with another woman, Callie transforms herself in the hospital scenes into a woman capable of the greatest tenderness; Vita sells the audience on Callie's transition.
As Sara, the schoolteacher who's new in town and new to Callie's life, Venus DelCambre exudes an enchanting blend of naivete and idealism. She teaches third-graders in the Bronx, a mission of mercy in itself. At one point, Callie's boyfriend George (David Casteal, in a humorous, macho performance) expresses disbelief that one of Sara's students has only just now learned to write her name. DelCambre reinterprets the child's backwardness as a victory that's "wonderful." We believe in Sara's optimism because DelCambre is full of sincerity. Earlier, Vita's Kate explains how much she hates the sister who stole a boyfriend away from her. DelCambre's Sara responds, "I hate your sister, too." DelCambre strikes a quick note of solidarity with her new companion. She giggles as she runs upstairs to confront an obnoxious apartment-dweller: firm, but playful too.
The play's structure reinforces our sense of Sara's strength by juxtaposing motivation and behavior, instead of separating them the way a linear narrative would. For example, right after we find out that it was Sara who stood up to the attacker, we discover why she's so bold: she had been taught by the example of one of her third-grade students, a little boy who told a male harasser to let his teacher alone.
Small incidents like these reveal character all through the play. As a dramatist, Son is masterful at etching symbolic meaning onto everyday occurrences. For example, Callie's response to a party question -- When a pothole's coming up, do you straddle it, or swerve to avoid it? -- comes to encapsulate one of her chief traits. Though it's naturalistic, Son's script is peppered with emblems. Characters make, then lie in symbolic beds. Switching jobs, confronting noisy neighbors, displaying a trophy, letting the cat sleep in a different bedroom -- all of these everyday actions carry symbolic weight. Son also places meaningful questions at the ends of scenes, where they will linger in listeners' minds: "Why would he call you dykes?" "Who am I helping?" "Why was she protecting you?" "Do you know who I am?" And statements, too: "But you're not really involved." "It'll be a bar with a whole bunch of lesbians in it. And us."
The play's not entirely somber. There are laugh-out-loud lines about Callie's cooking skills, about tiny steps in physical therapy, about the reading habits of older lesbians. But with gay-bashing as a premise, serious commentary about serious matters will always be lurking.
Son, who's Asian-American, originally wrote the part of Sara for an Asian-American actress; the cop who investigates the hate crime was originally cast as a white male. Both parts are played here by African-American women. Three relationships in the play are interracial, though that fact is never so much as hinted at. By letting race differences go unremarked, Son is perhaps pointing out an irony: even as race relations have improved, discrimination against gay people lingers. For too many of us, it is the last acceptable prejudice.
Stop Kiss the title, like Stop Kiss the play with the before-and-after structure, is bifurcated. Some want to stop gays from kissing. Others, anxious about their own homoerotic impulses, must put a stop to their own fear of condemnation. All of us need to stop and make an accounting. Stop first. And then discover love.