Review

Moving power of love in 'Stop Kiss' confronts brutality

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
'Stop Kiss' at the Pasadena Playhouse is one of the most moving love stories critic Charles McNulty has seen

At the center of Diana Son's drama "Stop Kiss" is a brutal attack on two women locked in an embrace. The scene is reported rather than graphically dramatized, but the violence clarifies so much about the tentative trajectory of this tenderly observed love story.

Produced at New York's Public Theater in 1998 in a memorable premiere starring Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh, the play is clearly set in New York in the late 1990s. But though there are many markers of the period (at one point a Tower Records bag makes a ghostly appearance), the essential storyline doesn't feel dated in the least.

Making a winning directorial debut at Pasadena Playhouse, associate artistic director Seema Sueko beautifully traces the hesitant path toward intimacy of two characters who are redefining themselves in the face of hostile societal forces that don't require a horrific physical attack to be felt.

Callie (a superb Angela Lin), who moved to New York for college and hasn't left, is a radio traffic reporter surveying the city from a helicopter in much the same way she floats above her uncommitted life as a detached observer. She has a romantic friend (a terrific John Sloan) and an enviable Manhattan apartment, but she's more or less drifting her way into the future. She doesn't know what she wants because she's keeping a crucial part of her identity a secret from even herself.

Sara (a stunning Sharon Leal) has just arrived from St. Louis on a fellowship that has her teaching at a public school in the Bronx. Through a friend of friend, she meets Callie, who agrees to watch her cat while she settles into the big city.

These women are very different — Sara has ideals she wants to fight harder for, while Callie prefers to conveniently coast — but there's a strong attraction. They seem to unconsciously understand that they need each other to grow, which is to say they are falling, profoundly if unwittingly, in love.

Since writing "Stop Kiss," Son has gone on to have a successful career as a TV writer and producer. (Her credits include "Blue Bloods," "Southland" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent.") She has a gift for capturing the textures and details of daily existence that the small screen thrives on.

But what has kept "Stop Kiss" fresh is its inventive dramatic structure. The chronology of events is fractured in such a manner that the play isn't simply leading up to a horrific gay-bashing incident. It's about the subtler effects of living in a society in which intolerance is an unspoken fact. Through the architecture of the drama, connections are forged between oppressive messages and inhibited souls.

Lin marvelously individualizes Callie's vagueness. She captures the comfortable yet exceedingly narrow band within which her character resides. But she also registers the tremors of longing that Callie has repressed but cannot shake.

Leal's beauty is exceptional, but her portrayal of Sara doesn't trade on it at all. (The sexual heat between Callie and Sara could if anything be turned up a notch.) Her Sara has a majestic integrity, and when she gazes at Callie you can tell that she's found home.

The attractive urban set by David F. Weiner isn't meant to be strictly realistic, though there are moments when Sueko's navigation seems a bit too casual. But strong performances throughout (the excellent supporting cast includes, in addition to Sloan, Jeff de Serrano, Amanda Carlin and Brandon Scott) override any superficial quibbles.

To love is to declare oneself, and "Stop Kiss" should speak to anyone who has had to search deep within to find the strength and conviction to join hands with another. I can't remember when a love story has moved me more.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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