It’s at times like this I’m glad I can call myself a writer. I was left speechless, with only written words to describe the latest Anderson University production at Byrum Hall. The student production of “Stone Girls Dreaming” is a national premiere for a new play by Texas playwright Lisa Railsback. Based on a true story, “Stone Girls Dreaming” takes place over three days in March 2002 in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although war is an element of this play, its real focus is on humanity and hope as it examines the cultural pressures placed on two young girls, Rebekah (Alissa Cook), an Israeli, and Aysha (Kristin Katsu), a Palestinian. Both girls show up at a supermarket in Bethlehem, one with a shopping list and the other with a bomb.
What makes this play potentially timeless is the focus on self-conflict, not the issues in the Middle East. I can see this play being performed years from now when political leaders find the need to fight over another piece of dirt somewhere else in the world to serve their own self-interest or those of their cronies.
Just when I thought I’d seen all twists and turns of the major plots, man against man, man against nature, etc, playwright Railsback gives us man against society with something new and refreshing — humanity’s desire for peace against cultural imprinting.
Cook’s riveting emotional portrayal of Rebekah will grab audiences by the throat and shake their belief systems to the core, or at least make them question everything they thought they knew about violence and fear. Katsu, as Aysha, contrasts Cook’s role with a penetrating brooding strength that transforms the Aysha character’s personal conflict into a universal understanding of hope mixed with the despair of oppression.
This play wouldn’t be as moving as it was if the two roles were played by lesser actresses. The AU students nailed their performances.
AU professor Ronn Johnstone’s interpretation of the script works. He brought elements of traditional Greek tragedy on stage, along with changes in how the audience learns of a death of one of the characters.
The use of fabric innovations to create images of death, water and war heightens the emotional response to the already strong storyline. The addition of news segments above the enlarged stage (they took two rows of seats out of the theater to accommodate the stage), simultaneous dialogue and action of actors right and left stage make this play sensual eye-candy.
As in Greek plays, where chorus members give the audience additional information, wildly masked mime characters move about, like genies, casting stones. Those not accustomed to modern theater might find this kinetic energy frustrating, or not understand why these silent mythical characters in black are there. They might wonder what exactly the metaphor of stones represents. For them, my advice is: Stop wondering and let the experience wash over you.
I’ve got a feeling this is one of those shows people will either hate or love. Unfortunately, those who hate it might just be wanting too much explained. I had a friend in the arts tell me once that she knew great writing when she was left not knowing exactly what everything meant but with a special emotional punch in her psyche. So if you go in not expecting to understand everything you see, you might just come out realizing you’ve witnessed something very special, and it’s that kind of experience that stays with you.
So as not to be totally unabashedly gushing, there are shortcomings, but nothing of gargantuan proportions. The lighting for the bombing just isn’t bright enough, a limitation of the facilities more than the lighting design of Benjamin Grohs.
The spotlight the soldiers use seems dim and almost not recognizable. And there’s a disconnect with the soldiers. For being in a dusty, dirty war zone, they all seem a little too clean and well pressed. And as I said earlier, some might think there’s just too much going on and find the play too emotionally draining.
But hey, in this day and age of media overload, it takes a lot to move our emotionally desensitized society and “Stone Girls Dreaming” does just that, it moves.
— Avon Water is a reporter with the Anderson Herald-Bulletin (www.theheraldbulletin.com). Article reprinted with permission.
Stone Girls’ playwright to visit AU
The latest guest of the Anderson University Guest Artist Series is playwright Lisa Railsback. The sponsors of the series, in conjunction with the theater department, brought Railsback from Texas to Indiana to the opening night and national premiere of her play, “Stone Girls Dreaming,” at the AU theater.
“We are very pleased to have a playwright of Lisa’s caliber as a guest artist in our series,” said Jeffrey Wright, dean of the College of Arts. “Our campus community is looking forward to her visit and the opportunity to open this discussion and question-and-answer time.”
“Stone Girls Dreaming” was first read at the Bonderman Festival at the Indiana Repertory Theater in 2003.
Railsback is from Austin, Texas, and received her master’s degree from New Mexico and her master of fine arts degree from the University of Texas. She is the recipient of the Jerome Fellowship from the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, Minn., and a Michener Fellowship in Writing from the University of Texas.
Her plays have been produced in 25 states, in Canada and Belgium.