Stop Kiss

A revival of Diana Son’s once controversial 1998 play comes to Pasadena Playhouse.

Angela Lin and Sharon Leal as Callie and Sara in Diana Son's Stop Kiss, directed by Seema Sueko, at Pasadena Playhouse.
Angela Lin and Sharon Leal as Callie and Sara in Diana Son's Stop Kiss, directed by Seema Sueko, at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Jim Cox)

Evolved thinking and social progress – welcome though both are – are no friends to Stop Kiss, Diana Son's 1998 play that examines a hate crime through the prism of a love story and vice versa. As alarmingly authentic and immediate as the plight of Callie and Sara is supposed to feel, Seema Sueko's revival of Stop Kiss at the Pasadena Playhouse butts up against museum-piece calcification from the beginning. Though gay bashing still takes place, it can take far more insidious forms than the hate crime at the center of Son's play.

The tenderly rendered love story, on the other hand, has no such period constraints, and some gritty work by actresses Angela Lin and Sharon Leal goes a long way toward making Sueko's production not only watchable but often heartbreaking.

Following their first kiss in New York's Central Park, Callie (Lin) and Sara (Leal) are attacked by a man who beats Sara into a coma. Son never depicts the incident; instead, over the course of 90 artfully structured minutes told largely out of sequence, we witness the relationship flowering between these two women and what happens after the attack, and its effects — physical and psychological — on Callie. Though both women are at a crossroads in life, Stop Kiss is Callie's journey.

Callie, a traffic reporter for a TV news station, rides around in a helicopter and confesses that she isn't really a journalist. She lives in a spacious — if perpetually disheveled — apartment opposite the Park. As rendered by scenic designer David F. Weiner, Callie’s living room slides out to bisect a pair of high-rise brownstones. Weiner’s smoothly specific set also captures a small portion of the Park.

Within her circle of close friends is George (played by John Sloan), a former boyfriend to whom Callie often turns for a meal, a date, words of comfort, or for casual, friendly sex.

Into her life steps Sara, whose cat Callie has agreed to board. Sara is an elementary schoolteacher from St. Louis who is new to the city and eager to be shown around. She left a secure position, loving family members and a former boyfriend back in Missouri for a much tougher job in the Bronx. But Sara is hugely focused and loves a challenge. In short, Sara is everything Callie is not. The ladies become fast friends, and their camaraderie gradually morphs into a different kind of attraction. Leal and Lin play this out with a dexterous blend of giddiness and fear. Not surprisingly, it is Callie who has difficulty pushing things forward.

The surrounding world is not helping. Between an all-business police officer (Jeff De Serrano) investigating the crime and the arrival of Sara's ex-boyfriend Peter (Brandon Scott) following the attack, Callie finds herself confused, cornered, and facing judgment. She can't come to terms with her culpability and can only describe Sara as her "friend." Lin skillfully handles the contrast between the newly-in-love Callie and the Callie who — post-attack — has to grow up. The character doesn't always make the most admirable decisions, but her choices are quite human, and we are with her at every turn.

Leal's Sara is every bit her match. Sara is, in many ways, the stronger character of the two, and Leal gives her great warmth as well as a spine. A scene that finds the two women sharing Callie's living room fold-out sofa bed, temptingly close to breaking through and making a connection, should resonate with anyone who has found him- or herself in an uncomfortable situation with the person who eventually turns out to be "the one." Juxtapose this with a hospital scene in which Callie helps a recovering Sara get dressed, and you can see Son has a shrewd eye and ear for the dynamics of relationships. She gets it.

As does Sueko. In her debut directing effort since becoming the Playhouse's associate artistic director, Sueko and her excellent cast serve up a production that contains tension, heat, and even a glimmer of hope. If Stop Kiss recounts how Callie learns to advance toward her goals without swerving, let the record reflect that a multicultural mecca like New York City should make such a journey such as this possible a lot more so now than 16 years ago.

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Stop Kiss

Closed: November 30, 2014