Friday, October 19, 2018

Urbanite Theatre's Modern Works Festival: Stalking by Jayne Hannah

Stage manager Megan Ianero and playwright Jayne Hannah
Playwright Jayne Hannah is a ray of sunshine. Her email handle is literally "jayneofjoy." And yet she penned the darkest of the three plays in Urbanite's Modern Works Festival -- "Stalking."  It's a play that left me breathless. I loved it.

When the play opens, we meet Magda, a young woman who presents herself as a therapist, and George, a man recently released from prison after serving 27 years for a violent sexual assault. The two have been corresponding during his incarceration, and George is here to learn how to re-enter the world. But Magda has other ideas. As the story unfolds, we learn that Magda is the very damaged daughter of the woman George attacked.

Steven Sean Garland and Casey Wortmann
I don't want to say more about the story in case you have the opportunity to see this powerful play in the future. Suffice it to say that "Stalking" is frighteningly timely with the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings. Chills ran down my spine during a scene in which Magda talks about her own rape and her attacker covering her mouth with his hand. Hadn't we just heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford talk about being subdued in this very manner?

I had the pleasure of getting to know Jayne during her time in Sarasota. Where, I asked, did this story come from? Jayne told me she has lived with the character of Magda for nearly 20 years. She always knew the young woman was damaged and had a penchant for stealing. "Stalking" provided Jayne the opportunity to explore Magda's backstory.

Staged readings--which are rehearsed--give playwrights with the opportunity to receive feedback on their work from both theater professionals and audience members. Jayne is truly in the throes of this process. The presentation of "Stalking" at Urbanite is book-ended by readings of the play at two theaters in Jayne's hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. It's been a complicated process, in part because the ending of the play has been hotly debated. Again, no spoilers. But the issue boils down to how much finality that last scene holds.

Jayne et al at post-reading talkback
Encouraged by Urbanite's artistic team to try an alternative ending, Jayne rapidly penned the changes while in Sarasota. Jayne, director Kim Crow and actors Steven Sean Garland and Casey Wortmann were literally incorporating changes just hours before the first reading. It only added to the intensity of the evening. Interestingly, the theater now working with Jayne on the show insisted on a return to the original ending. In art, as in life, there are few clear-cut answers.

Jayne's intention behind the play is consistent regardless of which ending she ultimately chooses. Her message is to be cognizant of how we treat others. A five minute interaction can have a significant impact on another person's life. Sure, the interaction in "Stalking" is an extreme example. But think about the consequences to a child of being told she's stupid or not good enough. Or the feeling a sharp comment from a friend or co-worker can leave. Or, more happily, the affirmation a lively encounter with a stranger can have.

Thanks to Jayne for sharing "Stalking" with Urbanite's audience and for being open to continuing to explore the story she's created.  Kudos go out to Urbanite as well for hosting the first of many exciting modern works festivals. Since its inception, Urbanite has presented plays with social relevance that challenge its audiences. The festival elevated this experience by enabling audiences to talk directly with playwrights about their work. Next year's festival can't come soon enough.


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