Gay-bashing. Victim-blaming. Sensationalizing by the media.
Elements of modern-day outrage are all there in the subtext of Diana Son’s stop-action Stop Kiss script — first received amid controversy off-Broadway in 1998 — about two women in New York whose slow dip into love, manifested by a first kiss in public, incites violence by an onlooker.
Yet what bubbles up from the page is often awkward, slumber-party titillation of girl-on-girl action — underlined by Magic 8 Ball consultations and prattling pillow talk. “Have you ever …?” “I can’t imagine any woman who’s never felt …”
How Kimberly Leone, in her Reston Community Players’ directorial debut, layers the work’s built-in froth with a solemn, binding commitment to cast out “othering” is where the true magic lurks. One way she does it is by holding the reins not only of a pliable, playful cast but of the set, costume, and properties design, for which she’s triply credited.
Callie (Jess Rawls) meets Sara (Susan Rearick) in the privacy of her disordered walk-up. Sara has moved from flyover country — well, St. Louis, which takes its own unfounded abuse in the piece — to the Bronx on a teaching fellowship. She has a pussycat whom she can’t keep at her place; through a friend of a friend, Callie agrees to board it. Quick scenes tumble forth out of order like jumbled memory, documenting the pair’s stages of infatuation and connection against the reactions to the assault from their friends/lovers, an investigator, a witness, a nurse. Society plays the outsider to Callie’s inner journey of self-discovery. Although spared having to witness the hate crime play out, anyone watching can easily testify that society has no business interfering with Callie’s choice of whom to love.
Rawls, a director herself and master chameleon, is exceptional as Callie, anchoring every scene while unstuck in time. Callie works begrudgingly as a traffic reporter, hovering between searching for purpose and love. She’s continually dressing and undressing, deciding what to wear as if not quite comfortable in her own skin, at times judging another’s outfit, experimenting with identity — with black-leather warrior boots her only thread of consistency. Rearick’s Sara, though coquettish and flighty, proves the more dauntless of the two. Confident in her wardrobe, she’ll don a flaming orange pillbox hat with matching orange hose and shoes if she wants to. She’ll root around in Callie’s closet, openly. (More touching than the actual kiss was a scene, mostly ad-libbed on opening night, in which Callie dresses Sara.)
Sara not only challenges Callie to right her rudder but stands up for them both in the face of danger. “They want me to speak truth to power, and I don’t know what that means!” Callie exasperatingly pleads to a comatose Sara. Even without words, Sara’s voice beams back.
The sole witness to the attack is Mrs. Winsley, delightfully drawn in two too-short vignettes by Cara Giambrone. She comes off as Karen-esque yet likable. Righteous while doing the right thing. Onlookers wonder: Would we?
In a play with lesbian leanings, one doesn’t expect to like the supporting male characters as much, but here they’re extra supportive. The audience benefits most from the appearance of Callie’s friend with benefits, George, characterized by boundless charmer Anthony Pohl. In his basement-lair T-shirt, a spare hand ever reaching for Callie’s fridge door, he lavishes comfort and presence. The chemistry between them nearly eclipses what’s unfolding between Callie and Sara.
Newcomer James Northrup as laconic Peter, Sara’s ex who travels to her hospital bedside, mesmerizes with repressed body language and longing. Damian Leone is biting and baiting as tough cop Detective Cole and executes side gigs as a server and set changer in hammy pantomime. (The cop’s not paying attention when finally prying Callie’s testimony out of her, however, was confusing.)
The intrusion-on-privacy theme also gets layered into the set design. A ribbon of architecture — a Central Park bridge? — hugs the base of Callie’s apartment pedestal center stage. The only curtain is not a theater drape but one defining a hospital suite stage right; at stage left is a nook that converts from interrogation room to coffee shop to tablecloth restaurant. During fascinating set changes, silent action takes place in all three arenas at once. A nurse’s station, though positioned at the edge of the stage and away from most of the action, feels oddly invasive. There, native New Yorker Jacquel Tomlin stays busy — a silent witness to those in their most vulnerable states. And while tending to Sara’s physical needs, she offers a refreshing salve for Callie’s soul.
Franklin Coleman’s lighting design (and the fun array of stage fixtures) pushes the show’s themes of encroachment: The stage is bathed in red at the start — for love, blood, blind rage — and moves from the harsh white of a hospital or inquisition chamber to the shadowy filter of moonstruck targets. Sound designer Liz Shaher feeds the ever-intrusive sounds of New York living, and if she’s also the master behind the interlude music, please accept raves for mix-tape nirvana. From the opening pounding of “Animal” by Neon Trees (reprised at the end) to snippets of “Body Parts” by Plain White T’s, “Tonight You’re Perfect” by New Politics, “Habits (Stay High)” by Tove Lo, “Riptide” by Vance Joy, “High” by Young Rising Son, on and on, it’s a tapestry of emo confessionals.
One striking omission in a show about budding romance is not crediting anyone for intimacy coaching — especially in this day and age. Quick PSA (public service announcement) on PDAs (public displays of affection): Meditate on one of the most famous publicly stolen kisses in American culture, the furtive photo of a sailor grabbing a dental assistant in Times Square as World War II wrapped. With all those onlookers smiling, it was celebrated then as euphoric but recast as sexual assault in Time magazine and elsewhere in 2014 — the period set for RCP’s production of Stop Kiss. How perceptions can change.
Against the backdrop of social evolution and a greater, long-overdue acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, Stop Kiss might feel anachronistic or tame. Still, the work exposes a-ha moments redressed over time for witnesses who, one hopes, won’t remain entirely passive.
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Stop Kiss plays through March 12, 2023, presented by Reston Community Players performing at Reston Community Center’s CenterStage, 2310 Colts Neck Road in Reston, VA. For tickets ($25–$30), contact the box office at 703-476-4500 x38 or purchase online. CenterStage is accessible and offers listening devices for the hearing impaired.
The program for Stop Kiss is online here.
COVID Safety: RCP requires that all ticketed patrons wear a mask inside the theater. RCP’s complete COVID-19 policies and protocols are here.