“Actually,” Anna Ziegler’s provocative and fascinating play, is being given a simple yet extremely effective production at TheaterWorks. The very title of the show is the crux of the plot—what “actually” happened between two college students during a drunken, romantic evening in which they had sex? Was it rape? This two character play stars Ronald Emile as Tom and Arielle Siegel as Amber and it is very good news that both performers are excellent. Since these actors are the only ones that the audience sees on Jean Kim’s minimalist set, it would be a major problem if either one was a weaker performer than the other.
As it is, the two are evenly matched, and both are really terrific during the 90 minutes of this intricately designed play. The action of “Actually” takes place at Princeton University, and the show jumps back and forth in time, as the details of Tom and Amber’s night together are gradually revealed. Director Taneisha Duggan has done a wonderful job of eliciting sensitive, complex performances from her actors, as well as keeping the pacing of this play razor-sharp. “Actually” at TheaterWorks is quite an interesting and exciting production and one hangs on every line and moment throughout the show.
A description of the story of “Actually” is rather straightforward, even if the playwright has designed the play with crackling intricacies. To sum it up, Tom and Amber had a date, in which they both got very drunk, and they eventually wound up in Tom’s dorm room, where they had a sexual encounter. These are the undisputed facts in “Actually,” but whether the two students had consensual sex, is a whole other matter. The tipping off point of the plot is Amber bringing Tom in front of a group of university professionals who, based on the responses of these two students, will decide whether rape actually occurred.
The surprising aspect of the play is that “Actually” focuses more on the actual date between Tom and Amber and much less on the final verdict decided by the university. Ziegler’s perspective on both her characters is far from cut and dried, with one really getting to know these two people well, and they both turn out to be quite complicated and, ultimately, sympathetic. The humanity of Ziegler’s writing is refreshing and makes the plot of “Actually” all the more intriguing.
Both actors are superlative and each embraces the multi-faceted qualities of their individual characters. As Amber, Arielle Siegel is both funny and a bit insecure, portraying a teenage girl who seems to exist in the background of college partying and dating. Conversely, Ronald Emile, as Tom, is the epitome of a heavy-drinking, highly sexual college guy who seems to want to sleep with as many girls as possible. Even acknowledging the differences between the characters, neither one is shown as being all-good or all-bad. The performers are on equal footing and both are fine actors, with Emile making quite an impressive professional debut in this play.
“Actually” at TheaterWorks holds the audiences enthralled from beginning to end and the playwright’s decision to not wrap the whole plot up in a neat little package makes this show all the more tantalizing. The production is also distinguished by the efforts of costume designer Sydney Gallas and lighting designer Amith A. Chandrashaker, whose work here creates an entire world onstage, of two college students meeting and making a connection. Whether that connection resulted in a crime is at the very center of “Actually” and the question of what “actually” happened between Tom and Amber makes for intense and breathtaking theatre.
“Actually” continues performances at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through June 23, 2019. For tickets, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.
Photo: Ronald Emile and Arielle Siegel (in silhouette)
Photo by Lanny Nagler