18-year-old Kim clearly has issues: from the very start of Liz Leighton’s new full-length play Learner’s Permit, we can see that she’s dangerously bright, desperately self-loathing (even by 18 year old standards) potty-mouthed, and subject to phobias about socializing, abandonment and driving. Her single mom, who has recently re-married, is a narcissistic boomer gorgon with the habit of interrupting conversations to record her own verbal gems on an antique manual typewriter. What’s more, Kim has a budding sexual interest in her cousin, an uptight medical student with baggage of his own. It’s safe to say she’s a misfit: in one fine rant, she defends her aversion to cars by critiquing the very basis of American civilization, pointing out that cars are complex machines, fueled by a highly volatile chemical and painted in bright colors to conceal their deadly nature. Who would want to risk their life in something like that?
It’s all to playwright Liz Leighton’s credit that this, far from seeming like the setup to an after school special, plays more like an update of Sophocles’ third-century tragedy Antigone, depicting in it’s own way the epic struggle between the individual and society, as well as rising to lyrical heights that place us in a cosmos ruled, not by the gods, but by the wonders revealed by science (this may be the first play ever to detail, in the context of an advanced placement study session, the difference between prokaryotic cells, which live on their own, like bacteria, and eukaryotic cells, that are part of larger organisms). In their fumblings toward romance, Kim and her cousin Cody describe their feelings for each other in flights of refreshingly original language as evocative, in their contemporary way, as anything in Romeo and Juliet.
Antigone is often held up as a role model for civil disobedience; her rebellion consisted of burying her brother’s corpse in defiance of King Creon’s orders. But brother-burying isn’t very controversial anymore; Leighton substitutes more contemporary sacred cows—like refusing to take your meds—while transferring Creon’s power to a more modern representative: Kim’s court-appointed psychologist, an unimaginative functionary with a maternalistic sense of her own medico-state power. Their confrontations alternate with scenes from Kim’s life before a dreadful car accident left her gravely injured and her mother comatose. These encounters, where Kim spars with all her considerable resources to keep from revealing how the accident happened, are the beating heart of the play. Kim reminds us of Holden Caulfield with her hilariously creative invective against the hospital staff, as well as Alan from Peter Shaffer’s Equus, another troubled youth striving to conceal terrible secrets. But, like Antigone, Kim’s tragedy stems from her being too passionate, too proud; if she had been a little more reasonable, she would have escaped her fate—and been less heroic.
Leighton impressively lets all this emerge from the dialog, rather than putting political views into her character’s mouths as a less skilled playwright would. She’s structured the script to gradually reveal more and more about the mystery, until, after a final, rather melodramatic reveal, there’s really nothing more to say. We’re left to ponder how society at large fails brilliant young people, oftentimes treating them as invaders: the psychiatrist functions as an impersonal eukaryotic immune system, whose job it is to isolate and neutralize dangerous prokaryotes that threaten the social order by living on their own terms.
Under Stacey Girard’s direction, Sasha Katharine Sigel and Derrion Brown, as Kim and Cody, show us the movements of their hearts with convincing subtlety—though the scenes with the adult characters could unfold with a bit more dramatic tension. With minimal sets and costumes, the production has a bit of an acting class vibe, but these sophisticated young artists should be very proud of their achievement. The show ran only one week, but World’s Stage is producing two more events in the near future: an intriguing “Night of Immersment Theatre” on February 7, and another story of brilliant youth versus mediocre age: Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in March. Considering World Stage’s abundance of strong, smart actresses, would it be outrageous to anticipate a female Mozart?
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