I have several friends who are teachers and ex-teachers in public schools, so I get firsthand accounts of how screwed up our education system is and, even worse, how it's in rapid decline. I could never do what they do. The thought of facing classrooms of 30+ unruly students on a daily basis makes me want to stab myself in the gut with a protractor.
American education as well as issues of adoption, race, parenthood, and marriage are the hot topics that lie at the heart of Ruth McKee's Stray, a new play co-produced by the Black Dahlia Theatre and Chalk Repertory Theatre and running until November 22, 2009, in Los Angeles. But the playwright, who won the 2008 Stanley Drama Award for this script, is thankfully more concerned with exploring the characters who struggle with these issues than with the issues themselves.
I'll have to admit that when the play started I got a little apprehensive. When you present to me what's supposed to be a social drama grounded in naturalism, my knee-jerk response is to shut down because, if I actually wanted to know more about the Important Matters at hand, I would prefer to seek out a documentary or a magazine article about it.
Stray is about a white couple whose newly adopted African child is wreaking havoc upon his teacher and classmates at his Ohio school. Stylistically, the play resembles Rebecca Gilman's controversial Spinning Into Butter, which shows how one black student at a Vermont college has a tremendous effect on the characters who swirl around him. Gilman's sleight of hand (and why I like Butter) is that the audience never sees or hears from the student that the play is about, which reframes the way audiences approach the piece. The big "discovery" for audience members is that Spinning into Butter is less about race relations and more about liberal guilt and hypocrisy.
In similar fashion, we never see or hear from the troubled Ugandan boy at the center of Stray. McKee is more concerned about the relationships between the five main characters whose lives are touched by this child—his father, his mother, his teacher, his principal, his therapist. It's a smart choice. What could've turned out to be—using David Mamet's term—a "problem play" is instead a rich and layered study of characters in crisis. They're all so carefully drawn and layered that I could imagine an entire play being built around any of these people. (It's a feat that filmmaker John Sayles achieves often in his movies.)
While the play's second act doesn't quite crackle as much as the first (McKee is tasked with having to actually deal with the issues at hand, and I personally was less interested in the mechanics and politics of the story, as I mentioned above), this world premiere production does feature strong work by an ensemble of local actors (Angela Bullock, Jennifer Chang, Eileen Galindo, Matt Gaydos, Analeis Lorig) and by a smart production team.
While director Larissa Kokernot has managed to get her terrific cast (Lorig as the mother in doubt is the heartbreaking standout) to find the emotional truth of each scene, she has resisted realism when it comes to guiding Tom Ontiveros's spare set design, with chalk outlines of hopscotch and other abstract shapes covering the stage and running up the walls and swings hanging from the ceiling. I should also mention that Mike Shapiro's clever and driving sound design nimbly covers the play's scene changes.
What starts out as an inquiry into contemporary social problems evolves into a challenging play about the individual sacrifices we all choose to make and why we make them. Are we truly turning the world into a better place—or are we imprisoning ourselves in a kind of personal victimhood that can't be detected when we're so preoccupied with helping others?
[Stray is running through November 22, 2009, at Black Dahlia Theatre in Los Angeles. For more information and tickets, visit Black Dahlia Theatre or Chalk Repertory Theatre.]