‘Stop Kiss’: The harsh realities of romance

( Marvin Joseph / WASHINGTON POST ) - Sara (Alyssa Wilmoth, left) and Callie (Rachel Zampelli) fall for each other, a bit tentatively, in \"Stop Kiss.\"

Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss” plays like an absorbing public-service announcement. The tale of the furtive lesbian romance that unfolds in the months before and after the commission of a brutal hate crime, the piece sensitively chronicles the sexual awakening of two appealing young women as they tiptoe around mutual desire.

The work radiated more urgency at its New York unveiling in 1998, when the recounting of the crime and the incremental tracking of the attraction between schoolteacher Sara and traffic reporter Callie seemed novel departures for a New York City story of love and self-acceptance.

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But it still offers its tender and funny rewards, which are validated in director Holly Twyford’s unadorned production for a fledgling troupe on H Street NE, No Rules Theatre. With a cast headed by the effortlessly convincing Alyssa Wilmoth as Sara and Rachel Zampelli as Callie, No Rules produces a “Stop Kiss” with no-
nonsense authority and, more important, a lack of the sentimentalizing that can phony up such an evening.

Twyford exhibits her own authority here, in her directorial debut. She played Sara in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s regional premiere of the play, in 2000. A gentle authenticity permeates the sparsely dressed H Street Playhouse performance space: The only real mystery in “Stop Kiss” is how and when that major first kiss comes to be, and Twyford and her actresses know exactly how to tantalize us with the tension.

Son’s play intersperses the details of an evening during which Sara is beaten into a coma by a stranger with the back-story evolution of her affection for Callie. At the outset, both are in stages of disentangling themselves from heterosexual relationships. Sara, it seems, has fled St. Louis for a teaching job in the Bronx partly to escape the smothering attention of boyfriend Peter (Jonathan Lee Taylor). And Callie’s attachment to restaurateur George (Bo Roddie) is propelled principally by George’s willingness to be a mere back-seat passenger in Callie’s life.

One of the more satisfying aspects of “Stop Kiss” is the slightly off-putting portrait of a whiny Callie, a woman not at all happy with her lot. In Zampelli’s perceptive handling, there is a sadness to Callie, who’s trapped in a job and sexual identity that don’t fulfill her. That her work entails helping others navigate the city is ironic.

The piece, too, treats the graduated nature of Sara and Callie’s halting romance with an affectionate wisdom, even when it’s on the rocks. Increasingly skittish around each other as they sense their relationship moving toward a physical one, they find, as people do, the most picayune pretext for throwing cold water on their ever-harder-to-control feelings. On an important occasion for Callie, those sure-fire fighting words — “Is that what you’re wearing?” — send them into a ridiculous argument, funny in its vehemence.

One could wish that a more contrasting rhythm might be set for the starker scenes involving the police investigation by Detective Cole (Howard Wahlberg). The idea that Son seems to be pursuing is how, even when a conventionally minded cop tries not to be insensitive to a coupling he doesn’t quite understand, he still ends up asking questions that smack of judgment. You have to believe that Cole’s interrogation of Callie could be more hackles-raising than the uncertainly paced proceedings evoked on this occasion.

On the other hand, Taylor injects just the right amount of clueless possessiveness in a strong scene with Zampelli’s Callie outside Sara’s convalescent room. It affirms Callie’s observation that Sara’s family blames her for the attack on Sara late one night, after they’ve emerged from a lesbian bar. The family looks at Callie, she says, “like I’m a dirty old man.”

Tony Cisek’s ultra-basic set — a few sticks of furniture — and Frank Labovitz’s costume choices reflect Callie’s (and Zampelli’s) understated beauty. In the best tradition of theater at the ground-floor level, No Rules, with Twyford’s aid, figures out how to make a lot from very little.

Stop Kiss

by Diana Son. Directed by Holly Twyford. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Ariel J. Benjamin; sound, Thomas Sowers. With Karin Rosnizeck. About 95 minutes. Through Oct. 2 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Visit www.hstreetplayhouse.com.

 
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