DeLeon Dallas and Emily Shain in "Actually." Photo by Jim Carmody
Amber (Emily Shain) and Tom (DeLeon Dallas) are freshmen at Princeton. Once Tom recognizes that Amber’s been eyeing him from afar, they share a flirty meet-cute followed by an innocent-enough first “date” at an ice cream joint. But when a subsequent rendezvous ends up in Tom’s dormitory bed, matters take a grave turn. What happened there depends on who you believe later, when Amber and Tom wind up at a disciplinary hearing over the question of whether he raped her. Amber says yes. Tom says no.
This is Anna Ziegler’s one-act drama Actually. The title echoes the word Amber spoke in mid-sexual encounter, one not shown to the audience onstage, to let Tom know that she’d changed her mind about the whole thing. Tom heard the word, he says, but didn’t take “actually” as a “no.”
With Brett Kavanaugh’s and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimonies still fresh, Actually’s “he said/she said” narrative couldn’t be more timely. San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Ziegler’s 2017 play is tense and frank. Most of the 90 minutes is presented in twin monologues, with Shain’s stricken, stammering Amber recounting events before and leading up to the night in the dormitory, and Dallas’ overly confident yet anguished Tom doing the same. Both dwell heavily in each character’s excessive backstories: Amber has body issues and a mother who disses her, and she’s given the implied complications of her Jewish faith; Tom is an African-American at a predominantly white Ivy League school, his best male friend keeps trying to kiss him, and it will turn out his beloved mother is very ill. Possibly these looming circumstances are designed to explain both Amber’s and Tom’s distraction and lack of judgment (along with just being college freshmen), but Actually’s is a very busy script.
Presented on a stage bare but for two chairs, the actors openly confront themselves, and the life-changing seriousness of their situation. When they do clash, the play finds its passion, having occupied itself too much before then in name-drops of Kierkegaard and Nabokov or, less sublime, in references to kegs and Jello shooters. Actually has a verdict, but, as in the reality of the times, no clear reconciliation between truth and conscience. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/24/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.