The Long Shrift written by Robert Boswell and directed by James Franco is currently at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The production stars a powerful ensemble cast headed up by the always fascinating Ally Sheedy. The play, which remains on a steady keel toward the surprising and revelatory, deals with thorny issues which currently plague the culture of youth and its guardians.
Recent articles in the New York Times have pinpointed one of the problems that Boswell broils us with in his interesting work: the topic of rape and holding the right individuals accountable, despite educational politics, unequal economic justice, and parental and social pressures. More specifically, Boswell directs our attention to controversial sub issues raising the questions that need to be in the forefront of male-female relationships, regardless of whether the couples are married, partners, friends, or are simply “dating.” At the foundation of Boswell’s work, which investigates whether a rape has been committed is the concept of penance, forgiveness, and the healing power of truth.
When the play unfolds, Sarah (Ally Sheedy), and husband Henry of 23 years (a well meaning and level headed Brian Lally), are unpacking boxes having just moved into a “hovel,” Sarah’s description of an unadorned, lower middle class home which we gather from Sarah’s diatribe is a complete step down from their former residence. During the exposition we discover why Sarah is disgruntled and depressed, though Henry with good humor and good will tries to lift her from her doldrums. The couple have had to sell their lovely house to pay the lawyer’s fees to defend their son against a rape charge. Richard, (an excellent Scott Haze), a senior in high school, was convicted and Sarah and Henry have had to sell their home to pay their lawyer’s fees. They have since purchased another place and followed their son to the area of Huntsville, Texas, where he is serving 9 years.
During the discussion about their son, we discover that Richard was a “fish out of water” in a tony, private high school amongst students of privilege, one of which was the young woman who accused him of raping her. Boswell sets the tone of mystery through the characterization of Sarah, who profoundly questions her son’s innocence despite Henry’s loyal and simplistic love and the assurance that Richard has been falsely accused.
Henry is amazed that Sarah doubts Richard and continually affirms that the victim is no “victim” for it was Beth (Ahna O’Reilly), who lured and teased Richard into consensual sex, which she later denied because she enjoyed betraying their son in a perverse display of arrogant superiority. Henry believes Beth accused his son because she could; she is backed by the power and justice rendered by oodles of money and an attorney whose “air tight” case the jury swallowed because of the inherent differences between economic class and social culture: Beth was the prom Queen and Richard was a geek and a nobody.
Because Sarah intuits that Richard is hiding something from her; she cannot forgive him until he comes clean and reveals what happened between him and his accuser. Sarah manifests this stasis in her relationship with her son by refusing to visit Richard in prison. It is not an easy decision, but she is as stalwart about not seeing him as Henry is as supportive about visiting. The audience is engaged in the ready proclivity to accept Henry’s stance because of the truism that money talks and lots of money roars, and the audience questions Sarah’s decision not to visit her son. As Boswell draws Sarah’s character, it is clear that the mother has become hardened, for deep within, she is unable to stem her bleeding emotional wounds at having lost her innocent, beautiful son to the extent that she can’t bear to see him in prison.
What is superb about Boswell’s play, Franco’s direction, and Sheedy’s performance is that elements of Sarah’s characterization play into the audience’s assumptions about the mother’s inability to withstand the pressures of circumstance to believe in Richard’s innocence. But as the play progresses, the characterization subtly deepens in a harkening back to the title. Sarah’s is the very tough love, where her husband’s is the sweet and understanding love. Indeed, Sarah is holding vigil for Richard’s truthful moment. It is only then he will be able to begin to heal and forge a new life. So the mystery Boswell unfolds with subtext after subtext is not only whether Richard is innocent or guilty of the rape, but whether Sarah was correct in intuiting that he was not telling her the truth. And of course, the playwright keeps us wondering what is the truth that should be revealed? Is it so complicated? Turns out it is.
After this opening, Boswell breaks the play’s structure and fast forwards to years later during which time Sarah has died (she does appear in a brief scene with Henry in his dream state), and Richie has been released after 5 years because his accuser recanted her testimony. Gradually, the mysteries are elucidated and eventually solved for lo and behold, the accuser, Beth, shows up at Richard’s door when he stays with his Dad to go to his high school reunion, a quasi-hero vindicated from the crime. What ensues when accuser meets accused is a grinding trauma of point and counterpoint, vilification, and sorrow.
Boswell shocks the play with a series of electric blasts which move in heightened power throughout: they begin with Richie, and continue with an indignant Henry who angrily confronts his son’s accuser and move in a crescendo to the climax. Adding to the storm, Boswell tricks in plot complications with Macy (Allie Gallerani), student class president and reunion coordinator who accompanies Beth to Richard’s. Macy presents a tempting offer that Richard give a speech to his former classmates explaining his innocence in the presence of his humbled accuser. Boswell’s characterization of Macy is an ironic symbol of the culture’s worst ideals. She exemplifies the warped mores which have contributed to Richard’s and Beth’s watery destruction in a corrupt social vortex that engulfed their dreams and lives.
During the remainder of the production we are left stunned again and again until the final moments of truth come. They are exacted at a heavy price of painful admission by Richard and Beth who finally face each other’s reality.
With dark humor, pathos and poignancy, and through gradual enlightenment, Boswell’s characters find their way out of the morass of anger, fear, regret and weakness surrounding the pivotal event which changed all of their lives. The ensemble has worked with absorbing, focused effort to bring this production toward powerful and truthful realism under the sterling and watchful shepherding of James Franco.
Sheedy portrays Sarah with an ease of moment to moment precision that is a joy to experience. There is just enough restraint and humanity, pain and petulance undergirded with the appropriate amount of tension for us to doubt and believe her testimony about her son. We sense she is determined to keep the vigil to the bitter end despite what may happen, in a standoff to see the truth out. When Haze and and O’Reilly come together in confrontation after confrontation, we are drawn toward them and repulsed. We wonder at their honesty. We remain engaged. Brian Lally sustains the moderated support and kindness necessary to reveal Henry’s love for his son. Allie Gallerani is sufficiently presumptuous, crass, and obnoxious. Yet, she suffuses vulnerability when Richard turns the tables around and lures her with notes of sexual temptation.
This world premiere leaves us with much to consider. Do men and women understand the boundaries of consensual sex at the same level. Should they? Must we continue to tolerate the inequity of the justice system which allows power and money to influence, buy or nullify convictions? When lives are destroyed by deceptions, can the truth bring renewal? Each of these and many more themes are threaded through this fine production of The Long Shrift. which is running until August 23rd.
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