Highland Repertory Theatre has made no secret of its desire to broaden Asheville’s theatrical options. As Rae Bucher, Highland Rep’s co-artistic director, puts it, “We pride ourselves on choosing well-written and innovative scripts that are a little different than the usual local offerings.”
Highland Rep’s latest production, Stop Kiss, is “a prime example of a terrific and important play that may not be seen on any other professional or community stage in our area,” Bucher says. Stop Kiss tells the story of two women — Callie, a native New Yorker and Sara, a Midwesterner who has moved to New York to teach school. Their new friendship leads to mutual attraction, and, finally, a kiss … which precipitates a hate crime.
Afterwards, one woman is in a coma, while the other one is left wondering about their relationship and what it might have become.
Though the play’s central act of violence takes place off stage, “a vivid verbal description of the hate crime” results in some “potentially offensive language,” warns Bucher. The local version of Stop Kiss will be presented in association with PFLAG, a support group for parents and friends of gays and lesbians.
This 90-minute-long slice-of-life is guaranteed to offend a few small-minded souls, which is reason enough to see it. However, as is always the case with any piece of art whose subject matter is political, the question remains: Is the art satisfying in and of itself? Bucher acknowledges that “message” plays can be troublesome. She says Highland Rep “avoid[s] producing ‘message’ plays that are without artistic merit.” However, she maintains that “Stop Kiss, while dealing with a particular issue, is also great entertainment.”
The two principal actors, Tracey Johnston-Crum and Angela Koon, agree. Koon, who plays Callie, says one of the play’s great strengths lies in its structure.
“It [has] two converging timelines — before the kiss and after the kiss — [and] you are constantly jerked back and forth between the developing relationship between Callie and Sara, and the aftermath of the attack,” Koon says. (According to Bucher, the play features more than 20 short scenes that document the growing — and deepening — friendship between Callie and Sara. “Andrew Gall [who shares artistic-direction duties for the Theatre and is directing Stop Kiss] is using three different projection screens and a representational set,” Bucher explains.)
A recent drama graduate from UNCA, Koon says she first read the play while still in college, and that she jumped at the chance to audition for the role of Callie. “I am constantly searching for scripts that leave you with something to sink your teeth into. This play does that … no matter how left or right you may be, you somehow find yourself in the middle, questioning your own ideals and beliefs,” she says.
Johnston-Crum, who plays Sara, says she enjoys the fact that she has so much in common with her character. “Sara is from St. Louis and has recently moved to New York; she teaches school in the Bronx, has 30 kids in her class, and knows all their names by the end of the first day,” says Johnston-Crum. “She’s a little naive, but she’s also very optimistic — I’m the same way,” she continues. Johnston-Crum, who worked as a professional actor in New York for several years before moving back to Asheville to start a family, says she was also thrilled when she heard Stop Kiss would be produced on a local stage.
“When I found out Highland Rep was doing it, I called Andrew and Rae and said I wanted to be involved even if I’m only pulling the curtain up,” she explains. The play, written by Diana Son (who also writes for NBC’s The West Wing), premiered in 1998 at New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater — and was so successful it was extended three times, winning a handful of honors, including a 1999 Obie Award.
Given the plot line, playgoers might expect a humorless, if dramatic, production. But Koon claims this isn’t the case. “Son has woven so much humor into the lines that you cannot help but laugh one minute and cry the next,” she says.