Boy Gets Girl
Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble
July 18 through Aug. 2 at the Darkhorse Theater
You don’t have to be a victim of any kind, on any level, to know that it’s a scary world out there. Everyday horrors have always been, and will always be, with us. This may explain, at least in part, why Rebecca Gilman’s stalker drama Boy Gets Girl has been enthusiastically received everywhere it’s been staged since its debut in Chicago in 2000. Critics have leveled some legitimate complaints against Gilman’s modern-day tale of one woman’s blind-date-turned-nightmare, pointing up its melodramatic made-for-TV-movie plot elements and its arguably less-than-subtle “women’s studies” lecture undertones. Yet the play’s audiencesfrom Broadway to London to Los Angeles (in a recent production starring Nancy Travis)have pretty unanimously hailed it as both intelligent and tautly involving.
Nashville gets its first glimpse of Boy Gets Girl on Friday, when Actors Bridge Ensemble opens its final production of the 2002-03 season. Vali Forrister is at the directorial helm, guiding a cast that includes Francie Murphey, Clay Steakley, Brian Webb Russell and Amy Chomsky.
Gilman’s work starts harmlessly enough. Theresa Bedell, a dedicated, sharp-minded thirtysomething writer for a New York arts-and-politics magazine, is persuaded by a friend to venture on a blind date with a computer trainer named Tony. Things don’t really go badly. Yet they don’t go promisingly, eitherat least not as far as Theresa is concerned. Tony thinks they have a future together, however, and his continued romantic overtures soon become annoyances; soon after that, they turn into psychological terrorism. Theresa’s life is turned upside down, until she must make some very hard decisions about her daily existence and her future as a journalist. She’s also forced to confront the reality of her vulnerability and to question her entire belief system as well.
Classifying stalkers has proven a somewhat challenging task for mental health professionals. Yet studies compiled by the National Institute of Justice reveal that stalking is more prevalent than anyone had imagined: Statistics show that 8 percent of American women and 2 percent of American men will be stalked at some point in their lives. That’s approximately 1.4 million Americans yearly, with the overwhelming number of stalkers being males and the overwhelming number of victims being female.
“I think the topic is more relevant now than ever,” says director Forrister. “I continue to hear recent stories related to this kind of stalking, where a relative stranger’s behavior becomes inappropriate very quickly.”
Then there’s the whole question of how a woman deals with her aggressor. How does she set boundaries in appropriate ways, and what does she do if that’s not enough? “It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault,” says Actors Bridge artistic director Bill Feehely, “but ours is a culture where a woman is considered a bitch if she’s direct with a man in some situations.”
This point has particular pertinence in Boy Gets Girl, where Gilman’s initial portrait of Tony is that of an innocuous, well-intentioned lonely-heart. “The way the play is structured, we don’t see a crazy man,” says Steakley, who is charged with the task of portraying the young sociopath. “But this ultimately makes him all the more menacing.”
Besides the play’s obvious social relevance, this element of character is what initially drew Forrister to Boy Gets Girl. “Tony is actually very charming and nice,” she says. “From one perspective, it’s not apparent that he’s a freak. You feel like Theresa is maybe overreacting to things. This is true particularly in the way we’re playing the scenes. At the end of the first date, you get the impression that they might make a very cute couple. There’s some sweet energy between the two of them.”
Alas, sweet turns to sour in Gilman’s hands, thus raising the specter of a key point in the stalker profile: unpredictability. The stage result is audience-pleasing suspense. “We don’t see the things Tony is doing or what he’s saying on the phone,” Forrister continues. “So we don’t know how far he’ll take the stalking. Part of the play is about how no one is exactly what they seem, and appearances can deceive.”
Murphey, who plays Theresa, counts herself fortunate in never having had to deal with such real-life incidents. “I feel safe in my neighborhood and my home,” she says. “I’ve even lived in New York and I never felt unsafe. I know, and have followed, all the rules. But lately it doesn’t take much to make me aware of things. Here the rug is pulled out from under the character of Theresa. It can happen to anybodyI know that much is true.”
Another of the play’s selling points is its wide range of character types. “All of the characters represent a wide spectrum of personalities,” says Forrister. “You have a strong, confident woman in the midst of being destroyed. You have a young, naive secretary who is flirty. You’ve got a female detective who’s been through therapy and has done a lot to work through her issues. Among the men, besides the stalker, you have a sensitive co-worker, an older paternalistic editor and also a pornographer.” The last character, played by Russell, functions to provide some ironic counterweight to the thorny human issues afoot, as Theresa must conduct an interview with this Russ Meyer-type filmmaker in the middle of her personal travails.
Whatever the play’s faults, they can’t allay the overall impact that Gilman’s work has had on theatergoers. “Boy Gets Girl is an important work,” concludes Forrister. “It shows us the randomness of violence and the cunning of predators. Sexual violence is so prevalent in our society precisely because it is unpredictable and indiscriminate. In our haste to distance ourselves from crime, we often blame the victims, noting that we would not have behaved as they did or been fooled as they were. This play addresses that issue head-on by showing us a strong woman and a charming man who have a perfectly innocent first date. Where it goes from there surprises them and us.”
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