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Admissions
by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 28, 2018

Thom Niemann, R. Ward Duffy, Henny Russell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first Studio production of the season is Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, which combines comedy and drama in a highly thought-provoking combination that looks at the highly charged topics of race and privilege particularly in the field of academics. It looks at an issue many families deal with–education for their children–and explores it through the eyes of a prep school administrator in Connecticut and her family. It’s also a critical look at whiteness and white privilege that’s sure to make its audience think.

In the interview with playwright Joshua Harmon in the program, he said he wanted to write a play where the characters’ whiteness is on clear display, in terms of how they live, think, and make decisions regarding race. It’s particularly focusing on white liberals, and a family of academics that has a degree of privilege that’s so ingrained they don’t even seem to notice it–not really, anyway, even if they say they do, and when anyone else tries to point it out, that’s when things get especially uncomfortable. The central figure is Sherri Rosen-Mason (Henny Russell), the admissions officer for a prestigious Connecticut prep school. She’s spent most of her career in the effort to increase the mostly-white school’s percentage of non-white students. Her husband, Bill (R. Ward Duffy) is the head of the school, and together they take pride in their diversity efforts. Their son, Charlie (Thom Niemann), is a high-achieving student at the school and has high hopes of attending Yale. Essentially, the plot shows how this family is presented with a series of dilemmas that challenge their perceptions of themselves and others, calling into question exactly how “progressive” they really are, and how much they will rely on their own privilege when they know it will help their own son in the quest to go to the “right” kind of college. The issue of appearance and numbers vs. people comes up a lot, particularly in situations involving Sherri’s friend Ginnie (Kate Udall), who is married to a teacher at the school who is black, and whose son–Charlie’s best friend–is also applying to Yale. There’s also a mostly comic subplot in which Sherri’s colleague Roberta (Barbara Kingsley) is trying to produce a new academic catalogue for the school, but Sherri wants to make sure it encourages diversity.

This is a show that raises several important issues and takes a hard look at privilege and self-awareness, or lack thereof. It raises a lot of questions but doesn’t exactly answer them, at least not completely. Mostly, this is a look at issues that seriously need to be talked about, portrayed by characters who don’t always know how to respond to those questions. These characters are relatable to a point, and I think a large point of the story is to have us–and particularly, white audience members–asking questions of ourselves–how much do we see our own privilege? Do we see racism or biases within ourselves? If we had the chance to give up some of our privilege to truly help someone else, would we? Or would we encourage our loved ones to do so? Do we see how we can come across to those around us? How important is “elite” education? Those are only some of the questions raised by this play, and they’re embodied by characters that are often relatable and sometimes, but not always, likable.

The scenic design is perfectly realized, recreating the world of an upper middle class New England family and Sherri’s office at the prestigious prep school that forms the center of this family’s world. Bill Clarke’s set is detailed and specific, and Lou Bird’s costumes suit the characters well. There’s also excellent evocative lighting by Nathan W. Schuer and sound by Rusty Wandall. All these aspects work together to create the world these characters inhabit, which is at once a realistic representation and a stereotype.

The small cast does an excellent job here, bringing their characters to life credibly, navigating the play’s sometimes witty, sometimes sharply comic, sometimes dramatic tone well. Russell has perhaps the most difficult job as Sherri, the well-meaning but sometimes clueless center of the production. She and the equally strong Duffy–amiable but also clueless in his own way–anchor the production. Niemann is also strong, giving a sometimes obtuse, sometimes sensitive, ultimately engaging performance as the sometimes entitled, sometimes confused Charlie, and Udall also makes a strong impression as the initially upbeat but increasingly conflicted Ginnie. Kingsley, as the perpetually exasperated Roberta, gives the most obviously comic performance and provides a great deal of energy and personality to her scenes.

Admissions is a play that should have audiences talking. There are some uncomfortable concepts, and truths, here, and a challenge in the sometimes deceptively lighter tone. There are also awkward moments, such as when the audience enthusiastically applauds one speech, only to have the character immediately chastised for the same speech. I’m not sure this play does everything the playwright says he wants it to do, but what it does best is raise questions. It’s a strong start to the Studio season at the Rep.

Henny Russell, Barbara Kingsley
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Admissions in the Studio until November 11, 2018.

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