In a brave new production of Diana Son’s play Stop Kiss, the audience is confronted with the uncomfortable reminder of how recently we, as a society, were far less accepting of same-sex relationships. And, while not as shocking as it may have been a decade ago, Stop Kiss still has major impact. Not so much as a story about two women falling in love, but more as two people falling in love, and then suffering an act of senseless violence as a result.
Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective has been going strong since its 2011 launch. The group tackles controversial topics and produces plays that are rarely done outside of major cities. And it packs in audiences —typically in intimate venues. It takes courage to be that close to the audience, and allow them to get deep inside of a performance, but Different Strokes is not one to shy away.
Different Strokes is a passion project of Steph Hickling Beckman, who typically works the levers from behind the scenes. This time, she steps right out front, as one of the two women at the center of Stop Kiss. She plays Callie, a long-time city dweller, who is jaded and closed off to change. She works, unhappily, as a radio traffic reporter, who flies all day above the city reporting ever-present congestion. Her relationships are stagnant, and she comfortably relies on the on again/off again “friends with benefits” with the equally hapless but content George, as played with a goofy charm by the excellent Scott Fisher. Beckman brings Callie to life in uncomfortably real ways, showing us a vulnerable and somewhat lost soul who finds renewed life, and learns to be the person who, in many ways, she has been fighting to repress.
Enter the bright-eyed Sara, played by Tracey Johnston-Crum (her second time in this role). Sara is a new transplant to the big city from St. Louis. She fought hard to win a less than glorious teaching job in the Bronx. She left behind a boyfriend, Peter, who may or may not know that they have broken up. Johnston-Crum’s maturity since her first outing (more than a decade ago) in the role helps to give new weight to the character, underneath the bubbly effervescence that she exudes effortlessly. The whole audience is in love with her from the moment she enters.
The second scene of the play reveals that Sara has been severely beaten up as a result of an intolerant attacker who spied her and Callie kissing in public. And from there, we move back and forth through time, as the blanks are filled in. The play bounces between the growing friendship and the end results of Callie and Sara falling in love. There’s no surprise about where things are going. Rather, it’s the journey of getting there and the growing affection that hooks the audience.
Callie struggles with her instinct to remain inside her shell, but can’t resist the charms of Sara, who encourages her to become a braver and more confident person, whether it be in confronting the upstairs neighbor who teaches dance lessons at 6 p.m. every Thursday or in displaying the award Callie wins for her work. And ultimately, Callie must use the courage that Sara inspires when Sara‘s future comes into question.
The struggle ramps up when Peter arrives from St. Louis with Sara’s parents (who we never meet) to take her back. Paul Gallagher gives us a tightly coiled Peter, who can’t understand what has happened or why, and resents Callie for reasons that even he can’t fully grapple with.
David Ely, playing Detective Cole, has to bring out the “bad cop” attitude to get to the truth of the matter, as Callie is reluctant to be completely forthcoming. Lucia Del Vecchio, as Mrs. Winsley, adds splashes of color amid the darkness, as the nosey neighbor type who witnesses the attack.
The play is about love. It is about courage. It is about acceptance. And it is all deftly directed by Hope Spragg, whose passion for the project brought her back to Asheville from Iowa, just to do this show. A portion of proceeds from the production will benefit the Asheville City School Foundation’s Emily Eliot-Gaines Memorial Performance Scholarship Fund.
Stop Kiss runs through Saturday, May 17 at the BeBe Theatre.