In November 2014, Rolling Stone published a now-infamous article titled A Rape on Campus — a piece that falsely accused members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia of committing a group sexual assault on a female student. The error was a result of basic journalistic misconduct — namely, relying on only the accuser's word without confirming details with the accused. It's a noble standard of journalistic integrity, and yet one that ultimately clashes with standards of human decency as Kim Davies eloquently articulates in her thought-provoking drama Stet, now running at the Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre (presented in association with The Muse Project).
Mirroring the Rolling Stone case, Stet (an editing term indicating that a previously made correction should be ignored) follows an up-and-coming journalist named Erika (Jocelyn Kuritsky) who has been assigned her first potential cover story: an exposé of a college-campus rape epidemic. She and her editor, Phil (Bruce McKenzie), search through videos of a Take Back the Night event (featuring one of many projections by Katherine Freer) and eventually discover Ashley — a girl whose horrific story of sexual violence and outward appearance of all-American innocence are just what Erika needs to satisfy the voyeuristic appetites of the average reader. Ashley (played with fragile intensity by Lexi Lapp) may not represent a typical on-campus assault — the kind that has led to the astronomical One In Four statistic — but it's a story that will sell papers and may even shock a few more people into caring about the issue at hand.
After all, anything less than perfect victimhood rarely pricks up any ears. Nor does it often win empathy for anyone but the accused, whose life has been tragically turned upside down by baseless accusations of a scantily clad party girl who stayed out too late and had one too many vodka-and-cranberry cocktails. It's the narrative that got Stanford swimmer Brock Turner only three months in prison for his heinous crime — an event now circling the media that sadly makes Davies' play all the more timely. Déa Julien lends a remarkably authentic voice to this familiar story as Christina, the head of an on-campus advocacy organization for rape victims — and also a victim herself. Julien delivers one of the most engrossing monologues of Davies' hyper-realistic text, giving credence to a story that is dismissed by many as a tale of "sexual regret."
Christina is by far the more forthcoming witness, but as Phil notes, "Joe Blow" in middle America will neither care about her experience, nor find reason to sympathize with it (a sentiment delivered by McKenzie with infuriating, though unfortunately understandable pragmatism). So Erika moves ahead in her pursuit of Ashley's more lurid tale. Ashley offers no names, refuses to be recorded, and will bring no legal action against her attackers. The closest Erika gets to hearing the other side of the story is a happenstance connection she makes with a student named Connor (a perfect performance of frat bro-dom by Jack Fellows) who may have had a part in Ashley's attack, though he refuses to speak on the matter, and ironically, educates other fraternity brothers on the dangers of sexual misconduct.
Yet, despite the absence of provable fact, through the power of her story, Ashley commands the right to be both heard and believed — an inscrutable disjunction between moral instinct and the sterile rules of journalism, which Davies captures with impressive economy. Kuritsky embodies this struggle as the conflicted reporter stuck in the middle of her personal and professional instincts. Her hard-as-nails persona softens throughout the course of the assignment, though she keeps her cards close enough to the vest that we never truly know if it's her principles or her ambitions that are in the driver's seat.
While there are enough ethical dilemmas in Stet to chew on for several lifetimes, there is nothing innately theatrical about the play that requires it live on a stage. However, while it happens to be there, director Tony Speciale lends the piece some interesting choices within set designer Jo Winiarski's all-purpose conference room, which plays the role of several offices, a bar, and even Ashley's dorm room. The most jarring piece of staging may be Erika and Phil's heated debates from behind a set of opaque sliding doors. We in the audience may pride ourselves on our open-mindedness and depth of empathy as individuals who would choose to attend a play that deals with the difficult subject of rape. But for at least a moment, there's not much that differentiates us from the eavesdropping rubberneckers who will soon be reading Erika's tell-all for their fleeting entertainment.