Theater review • Eric Samuelsen's new play explores human rights and their abuse.
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"Nothing Personal," Eric Samuelsen's unrelenting dynamo of a play now receiving its world premiere by Plan-B Theatre Company, consistently contradicts its title.
When one person assaults another with unending questions, demeans another's dignity, undermines another's self-confidence, pushes the limits of endurance until personhood is threatened, how can that experience not become personal for both the torturer and the tortured?
The play takes off during the Clinton administration when Susan McDougal is imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement for contempt refusing to testify before prosecutor Kenneth Starr's Grand Jury investigating the Whitewater real-estate scandal.
The two never actually got the chance to confront one another, so the play becomes a psychological study of what happens when one person forcibly tries to impose his vision of truth and reality on another. As Kenneth says to Susan, "You've constructed a reality in which I serve as villain. I've constructed one in which you're an adulteress." These personal "truths" are mutually exclusive; one of them has to topple.
Director Jerry Rapier's staging reinforces the play's adversarial dynamic. Susan's cell is defined only by Jesse Portillo's atmospheric lighting, where day and darkness become almost indistinguishable. As the action intensifies, Kenneth invades Susan's space until the two eventually sit facing one another warily, like two exhausted combatants in a boxing ring. Cheryl Ann Cluff's sound design with its incessant beeps, siren blasts, throbbing bells, unintelligible voices, and loud music intensifies the paranoia.
One of the things that "Nothing Personal" does best is create a surreal world where like Susan our perception of what is real and what isn't becomes uncertain. To what extent is Susan actually subjected to physical torture and condemned as a terrorist and how much of her belief that this is happening is due to sleep deprivation and anxiety about her safety?
As the play progresses, we become increasingly disoriented; perhaps what we think is real is only an externalization of what's happening in Susan's mind, and does that make it any less real?
What is certain is that "Nothing Personal" offers some of the best performances we are likely to see this season. April Fossen's Susan is feisty and determined, wielding her ironic sense of humor as both weapon and defense. As her physical resources are increasingly taxed, she struggles poignantly to hold onto her sanity but never succumbs. Even at her most psychologically battered, she can say, "People do the best they can….We're just people." Kirt Bateman's self-righteous, arrogant Kenneth sees his mission to get Susan to confess as a moral imperative. He becomes almost obsessed with the sexual aspects of the case. His drive to preserve America from the moral rot he fears will overwhelm it eventually sputters and dies as he realizes, "America failed me. There isn't a hell hot enough to cleanse this nation." He becomes almost a tragic figure.
As the matron, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin is implacable and enigmatic. Is she a voiceless torturer or merely someone doing a job? When she erupts into speaking in tongues, she looks like an avenging angel.
"Nothing Personal" emerges as a sometimes gritty, often eloquent exploration of the way personal identity and integrity are the victims when divergent points of view collide. Whatever you feel about torture, mutual respect is necessary if human beings are going to learn to live together.
Plan B Theatre Company takes a mesmerizing look at the consequences when one person tries to impose his vision on another.
When • Reviewed Oct. 24. Continues Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Nov. 3.
Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $20, $10 for students; 801-355-ARTS, arttix.org for tickets or planbtheatre.org. Contains adult language and situations.
Running time • 75 minutes (no intermission)