ADMISSIONS: Power & Privilege
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219
Performances: September 12-28, 2019
Ticket Prices: $30 general admission; $20 seniors & industry/RVATA; $10 students and teachers with ID
Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org
How ironic that Joshua Harmon’s award-winning play, Admissions, opened at TheatreLAB the Basement just two days after actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to serve 14 days in prison, community service, and $30,000 in fines for her part in a huge college admissions scandal. Huffman and several other well-to-do parents bought inflated test scores and falsified their children’s athletic talents in order to secure admission into the “best” schools. The family in Admissions didn’t go quite that far to secure an Ivy League admission for their son, Charlie, but the extremes they did resort to were entirely out of alignment with their purported liberal-leaning philosophy and cast a shadow on the integrity of their way of life.
Donna Marie Miller plays Sherri Rosen-Mason, the admissions officer of a private prep school in New Hampshire where her husband Bill, played by David Clark, is headmaster and her son Charlie (Tyler Stevens) is a student. Sherri has made it her life’s mission to bring diversity to the campus – even when it stirs up tension with long-term administrators like Roberta (Jacqueline Jones). Her husband brings her flowers and wine to celebrate reaching 20% minority enrollment after years of efforts to diversify.
When Charlie, a senior, finds his plans to attend Yale are dashed, while his best friend, who is biracial and can “check the boxes” is accepted, he goes on a ferocious tirade, pitting white privilege against affirmative action. This is one of those monologues that is at once a remarkable, challenging accomplishment for a talented young actor, such as Stevens, while at the same time it is such an ugly, entitled, intolerant tirade that it keeps the audience glued to the edges of their seats. At the end, Charlie’s dad scornfully spews out, “Well! Looks like we successfully raised a Republican!”
Charlie’s deferred admission status raises the question, What is fair? And it seems the answer depends on who you are. Director Deejay Gray warned the audience at the start of the show to be prepared to be made uncomfortable and encouraged discussion with those seated nearby.
It wasn’t that long ago that Miller was playing the reluctant administrator of an animal shelter in Animal Control [https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/07/07/animal-control-the-second-world-premiere]¸ and this role invites comparison. In Animal Control Miller portrayed a uniformed bureaucrat who reluctantly assumed a position that was thrust upon her. In Admissions it is almost the opposite; when we first meet Sherri, she is self-assured and righteous. As the play goes on, she exposes the cracks in her chic, pant-suited demeanor. At one point Miller’s character resorts to a reversal of that bastion of inclusion and tolerance when she utters the defensive sentence, “Some of my bet friends are white men.”
As the father, Clark seems to be a voice of reason until it comes to the possibility of his own son attending a community college. (Sorry, but nothing nice is said in support of community college in this play.) Stevens gives a high-spirited performance as Charlie, and I especially enjoyed the counterpoint to his fiery monologue, when he presents his mother with an alternative plan for college. In this proposal, playwright Harmon has brilliantly allowed Charlie to be innovative, sensitive, and rebellious all at the same time.
Supporting characters enhance the story, providing social and historical context as well as several delightfully amusing moments. Sara Collazo plays Sherri’s friend and neighbor Ginnie Peters, mother of the biracial best friend, Perry, who is never seen, while Jacqueline Jones takes on the role of Roberta, the stalwart administrator who appears to have come along with the school as a package deal. Ginnie points out the hypocrisy of caring more about how it looks for the school to have an acceptable number of minority students than actually caring about the students; a “star” student that Sherri had expected to make a generous donation had confessed to Ginnie that he was miserable and neglected while attending Hillcrest.
Roberta is an undercover racist who couches her racism under the smoke screen of “I don’t see color.” Wearing stylish red eyeglass frames, Jones milks a scene in which she leaves Sherri’s office after a less than successful review of her work on the school’s admission book, taking her sweet time as she exaggeratedly puts on her scarf, buttons her coat, deliberately positions her hat and snaps on her gloves before flouncing out of the office.
Ruth Hedberg is the costumer and has selected appropriate contemporary outfits for the play, set in rural New Hampshire during the 2015-2016 academic year. Connor Scudders set is attractive and built to withstand quite a bit of door slamming. One thing I found innovative was the way he built two rooms parallel to one another, with Sherri’s office occupying the downstage third of the stage and her kitchen taking up the rear two thirds or so. The variation in colors and textures and Michael Jarett’s subtle lighting cleverly drew our eyes to the appropriate space without distraction. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design included several dance-able and very urban sounding song selections, some of which I would have been quite surprised to hear in rural New Hampshire.
Deejay Gray’s direction so thoroughly engaged his cast and audience that when intermission came, roughly half-way through this two-hour journey, I was shocked that forty-five minutes had passed so quickly. The intermission, by the way, was Gray’s idea, as it was not written into the script. Roberta’s insolent attitude, however, was delightfully scripted by the author in great detail.
Admissions couldn’t be timelier. Deejay Gray could not have engineered the national news to be any more relevant than the latest headlines. The theater provides a safe space to talk about uncomfortable topics. Unfortunately, as at least one audience member commented after Saturday night’s show, the people who most need to talk about this, and with whom we’d most like to share this, probably don’t come to the theater.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Tom Topinka