As enjoyable as my last adventure’s whirlwind of color and excitement had been, Actually by Anna Ziegler as presented by Bob Carter’s Actor’s Workshop and Repertory Company in West Palm Beach was an example of the raw, haunting, heart-stabbing, head-spinning kind of theatre that’s much more my speed.
Despite the fact that they only had a week and a half to learn the part after a sudden drop-out by the original actress, Emma Sue Harris totally nailed the role of Amber, perfectly capturing the character’s anxiety, ambivalence, and unlikely charm. I’m not sure that the singular textual mention of her character’s ”weird sad eyes” necessarily called for the cross-eyed contacts they were saddled with, but that’s more or less my singular complaint. Their costar Jacquez Linder-Long was also excellent as Tom, deftly balancing the character’s surface charisma, nuanced past, and hidden doubts.
The show is an incredibly minimalist one; the cast includes only those two actors, and the set consists of only two chairs. The action of the play shifts between flashbacks of the courtship between main characters Tom and Amber and scenes of the two reflecting on the aftermath of a sexual encounter that Tom remembers as consensual and Amber recalls as a rape.
The story is, or at first seems to be, that Amber unthinkingly says that Tom “practically raped her” after their drunken fling and then fails to prevent her friends from blowing the whole thing out of proportion and turning the matter into a formal accusation. The central couple’s courtship prior to that moment is awkward and refreshingly realistic and unromantic, yet still quite touching. Up until the fateful sexual encounter around which the play revolves, Amber was far more into Tom than the reverse. While she genuinely likes him and is hoping he will be her first real boyfriend, he is mostly humoring her and trying to get into her pants.
Eventually, though, Tom begins to warm to Amber’s weirdness, and the thing about them that is almost the most devastating is the fact that had it not been for this fateful misunderstanding, these two lonely and tormented characters actually might have been able to connect with each other. It is obvious that they still care about each other even after the incident, but the affection is now mixed with feelings of hatred on both parts.
Both characters were intoxicated and seem to have a very hazy recall of the night, but Amber claims that she got up to leave and he forcibly pulled her back and finished, while Tom has no memory of this happening.
Tom is a well-developed, interesting character, and I think I would have had sympathy for him even if the reasons he was in a bad mood the night of the incident weren’t quite so extreme. As it was, his backstory on that particular evening felt a little too much like the wheels of plot churning than a realistically likely scenario.
Further complicating the matter are the pair’s class and racial differences. The official assigned to Amber’s case warns her to think twice before accusing an African-American student, and Tom resents Amber’s refusal to take into account her white privilege before putting him in a position in which he is likely to be considered unfairly due to his race.
Yet more complexity comes from the fact that Tom had a previous incident of sexual deviance on his record, an encounter with one of his high school teachers. In his recounting, she initiated everything, but then framed him as the aggressor because she was trying to preserve her reputation; the authorities then believed her because of their racial bias. If his version of events is true, his righteous anger is justified, but is there a chance we could actually be dealing with a character who has a tendency for mentally rewriting unpleasant truths to keep his “nice guy” ego intact?
As an awkward, high strung, literature-obsessed upper-middle-class Jewish girl with body issues, a low alcohol tolerance, and an inability to look people in the eyes, I had a freakish amount in common with Amber—which makes it all the more remarkable that for most of the play, I wasn’t actually on her side, but on Tom’s. After all, though she claims to have implied it with her physical action, Amber agrees that she never said “No,” to him, only “actually…,” as well as that she had clearly indicated her desire to have sex with Tom earlier in the night.
It’s only towards the end of the play when it becomes apparent that Tom may have realized that Amber “wasn’t into it” during the encounter and continued anyway rather than being genuinely mistaken, as well as when Amber reveals how deeply she has been hurt by the experience, that I started to wonder whether I may have initially made the wrong call.
I certainly understand Amber’s experience of “wanting something and not wanting it at the same time,” and the fact that she seems to see sexuality and being desirable as a path to connection and normalcy. It’s hard to tell what exactly pushes her over the line from wanting to be intimate with Tom to definitively not wanting it midway through their encounter; was it that she just was just wasted and overwhelmed, or upset with Tom for being too drunk and preoccupied to relate to her as more than just a piece of ass?
I wish there were a way to acknowledge Amber’s feelings of violation and confusion without having to saddle Tom with a word as loaded and potentially destructive as “rape.” But would it belittle Amber’s experience to call the incident anything else? Am I judging her valid complaints about a line that Tom should not have crossed through the unreliable prism of my own beliefs about what a woman should do and what constitutes a woman being too self-righteous? How cruel have I been to the men I was involved with by implying, however casually, that my consent might’ve been dubious in situations where my desires were practically unreadable?
Actually, I have no idea, and it’s worth going to see Actually on its final weekend not only so you can experience a thrilling evening of theatre but so you can deeply consider these questions for yourself.