I’m a movie person, not a play person. Suspending reality in a dark room with a stage is not one of my fortes. And I’m drawn to movies with strong female characters, whether it’s Silence of the Lambs or Alien or Bridesmaids. So when someone told me “You’re going to love this Off-Broadway play about a gay man who blames a high school bully for his best friend’s death and then confronts him 15 years later,” I decided to head to New York City to see for myself.
In the opening scene of From White Plains, Ethan (Aaron Rossini) is watching the Oscars and sees Dennis (Karl Gregory) give an acceptance speech for a screenplay he wrote. The movie was based on Dennis’ best friend’s suicide after being bullied as a teenager. Dennis says, “I hope this film helps all the Ethan Rices of the world see the effect they are having, and the Mitchell Coles of the world know they are not alone. So that maybe a few more of them see that life is worth living.” The play then follows the aftermath of Ethan’s public naming. Ethan and his best friend John (Craig Wesley Divino) debate Ethan’s responsibility for the death, while Dennis’ boyfriend Gregory (Jimmy King) questions Dennis’ inability to move on from the tragedy.
The play’s tagline–”Just because it gets better doesn’t mean it didn’t happen”–expresses perfectly the inner conflicts of each of the play’s characters. The message is clear: We must stand up to our abusers. But the question that hangs foggily in the air is: And then what? This limbo, this purgatory where healing must take place is the subject of the play.
As a woman, I am no stranger to victimization, so relating to the four male characters was uncomfortably easy. Since I have been both the victim and the therapist, their emotional processes were familiar though not predictable. When we dive into a trauma with an appetite for healing, the question of forgiveness eventually comes up: What is forgiveness? Can we forgive? Should we?
From White Plains suggests that forgiveness is overrated. “I’m sorry” is clearly not enough for Dennis; Ethan’s public Internet apologies only increase Dennis’ rage. The lack of face-to-face interaction fuels a series of one-sided arguments that simultaneously reveal and guard their vulnerabilities.
But in place of forgiveness, what is the goal? What does moving on look like? Ask any trauma victim or anyone who has lost a loved one: the pain doesn’t ever go away, it only shifts and changes shape over time. Dennis has been living with it for over a decade, and Ethan is a newcomer when he learns he is partly to blame for another’s death. We see them as victim and bully, opposites, but what ties them together is their similarities. After they each acknowledge their pain publicly, they both find themselves asking the same question: And then what?
From the moment the lights came up, the brilliant acting sucked me in. In one of the last scenes, the interaction between the actors is so intense, you feel like you are witnessing something naked that you weren’t supposed to see, like walking into the dressing room of someone’s emotions when they forgot to lock the door. Throughout the play, we are witness to Ethan’s loneliness and struggle to look honestly at himself, to John’s questioning his friendship with Ethan, to Dennis’ infected wounds, to Gregory’s desire for Dennis to shut up and live. What happens after we confront bullying, homophobia, and abuse is messy and unpredictable, and we have the responsibility to write that storyline together, just like the characters in From White Plains do.
From White Plains is conceived and directed by Michael Perlman, and written and developed in collaboration with Fault Line Theatre. It is playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City through March 9.
Photo from From White Plains by J Jacob Goldberg, 2013