SALT LAKE CITY — “Human rights are black and white, but human beings aren’t” is the thesis at the heart of playwright Serena Collins’s new play, Sympathizer. Set in a nondescript high school in 2017 as the #MeToo movement sweeps across social media, the plot focuses on the uncomfortable realities of and unforeseen relationship impacts from sexual assault. When her best friend is named as a perpetrator on social media by a girl from another school, Calla tries to find the best path forward for everyone involved.
Director Emily Nash keeps the action moving in the single-act script. Collins’s dialogue crackles along as Nash uses every opportunity to lighten the heavy content with humor in small moments. I’d be curious to know which beats of silent comedy between scenes were written by Collins, which were discovered by the actors, and which were created by Nash.
The script is well structured, and the characters are drawn out with details that allow the audience to identify with their strengths and flaws. The actors, all students at University of Utah, are comfortable in these roles. It is as if the conversations were based on ones they have had with their peers in this unique and historic moment of reckoning. From the start, with a content advisory, to an ending complete with a cast decompression hug and dance break, the production is self-aware, and self-important in a way befitting a group of passionate young people.
The production team has done an excellent job of keeping things simple for the black-box space. The ubiquitous presence of smart-phones on stage, used to great effect for lighting, sound, and as drivers of the action, highlights the stakes of living in a world where every “like” and “follow” can be held up as signifiers of your moral code and belief system. Calla, played with great compassion by CoCo Berwald, is called on immediately by her girlfriends to “stand with women” by cutting off contact with Ty, played with fitting boyish charm by Tyler Kline. Calla is uncomfortable with having to abandon her oldest friend in a moment where he feels desperately misunderstood and when she might be able to help him accept responsibility for his bad behavior. It is difficult and relatable to watch these kids grappling with the hard truth that there is no “going back to before.” Ty’s actions have sent out a ripple effect that will expose the unspoken pain in many of the relationships around him. The best take away is realizing that, despite the pain, healing can only begin when a wound is identified.
As the action unfurls, we are faced with the ineptitude of our culture and lack of language for speaking about sexual experiences. The subsequent discomfort we share in talking about sex heightens the potential for harm especially when we are first embarking on sexual relationships. Collins calls attention to this issue as the characters wrestle with discussing the details of their experiences. When Ty finally shares with Calla his version of events from the night of the assault, he purposefully turns his body and face away from her and speaks in euphemism about his actions. Again and again he insists his intentions were good but also that he and Lila “barely talked.” In consequence, while he left the encounter feeling awkward, she walked away feeling violated. How much good some decent sexual education and consent training could do for these kids, and all of us!
I have a few considerations for Collins, should she wish to continue development of this script. It is a clear choice that Lila, the accuser, never appears. We hear nothing more from her than what fits in a Tweet. And while the play centers on the decision to “believe women” and firmly points out that survivors are under no obligation to share the details of their story, there may be a fruitful exercise in writing a draft of the script, or additional scenes that bring Lila on stage so that her experience can be centered. While the role of Mandy, played with fierceness by Syd Beacham, helps illuminate the experience of one survivor, there is room to explore more deeply. Additionally, the relationships among Georgie, Samantha, and Mandy also seem a fertile place to examine the power dynamics of female friendships and perhaps queer relationships. At present, Georgie, played by Maggie Globe with wide-eyed devotion, and activist Samantha, played by Ellie Otis, feel the least developed of the principal characters. Finally, it is worth considering how the tight framing of the story would be complicated by casting actors of Color. While there is one effective moment in which race is mentioned in the script, it is a useful exercise to consider what, if any, dialogue would deserve revision if each of, or a mix of, the characters were not cast with White actors.
Collins has given her audience much to consider with Sympathizer. It is encouraging to see the fearless storytelling a new generation of theatre artists is bringing to the stage.