The nature of truth and recollection is put through the ringer in “Actually”, Anna Ziegler’s timely drama about possible date rape on a college campus that is currently generated plenty of post-play talk at TheaterWorks in Hartford. The theatre’s fourth production of its 2018-19 season continues at the Wadsworth Atheneum while renovations on TW’s Pearl Street home continue.
Amber Cohen (Arielle Siegel), a mousy but bright and funny Jewish coed meets athletic and personable African-American student Tom Anthony (Ronald Emile) at a Princeton College mixer. The two hit it off flirting and drinking until Amber insists on playing a truth-or-dare type game that Tom only agrees to when she correctly points out, “You wanna sleep with me, right?” From there, Ziegler’s provocative she said, he said drama takes the couple from a drunken hook-up to appearing as adversaries at a college hearing to adjudicate an accusation of rape. There are two storytellers in “Actually” and it is very much to Ziegler’s credit that she paints everything in varying shades of gray. The play’s title refers to the word Amber says when she contends the sex was to stop. Perception is everything, however, and Ziegler provides no easy answers in her complicated, all-too-human drama.
In the tense two-hander (played without intermission), both actors rise to the challenge as the drama plays with time giving us crucial information about each of the students’ family and sexual history. Siegel generates warmth and wry humor to mask insecurities dealing with body issues that seem to evaporate under Tom’s attention. Emile, a non-Equity actor and recent graduate of New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, is excellent delineating the bluff and swagger of a young man who may or may not be ready for a truly romantic experience. Both actors have an aching chemistry that is only the more tragic for the path their doomed romance takes. You feel for both these characters and the actors deserve most of the credit for that.
Making her professional directing debut at TheaterWorks, director Taneisha Duggan has given both actors plenty of room to breathe, but hasn’t staged the work with much variety or visual interest. Set on a bare stage framed by a huge projection screen, the actors are often moved like birds on a wire. More levels, along with a few pieces of furniture would have helped delineate areas. The projection screen, which displays only a metaphorical feather throughout the play, could have been used much more interestingly, too. Duggan also has lighting designer Amith A. Chandrashaker employ some odd cues that include bringing up the house lights twice for no apparent reason during the play. It reads like a gaffe.
But in all, “Actually” is a conversation-starter; a sad but powerful character study about being human as perception challenges reality. At one point Tom asks, “Is it what you say or how you say it?” That potent line haunts this challenging and well-acted play long after the curtain call.
“Actually” continues at TheaterWorks at the Wadsworth Atheneum through June 23. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.