Monday, February 08, 2016

Back the Night by Melinda Lopez

Back the Night by Melinda Lopez
Directed by Daniela Veron
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre – February 4-28
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

I’ve never opened a review by talking about the “talk back” that occurred after the performance—where playwright, director and actors take questions from the audience—but it’s fitting to do that for Back the Night, because it helps point up the qualities that make this play so powerful.

At the opening of the talk back, playwright Melinda Lopez spoke about how the play came to her essentially “whole,” the characters and action of the play clear and distinct in her mind. This speaks to how inspired and unified the play feels in production. She also spoke about how the play was “workshopped” with the actors before rehearsals started—a luxury not afforded all plays—and revised accordingly, which makes it clear why the play is so tightly written and why the actors work so well together.

Lopez also spoke to her hesitancy about writing a play that called into question a young woman’s story about being assaulted, which signifies the depth and honesty of play. And, finally, the actress Melissa Jesser talked about how Lopez’s characters have layers, like an onion, which indicates how complex and real those characters seem when you see them on stage.

Back the Night is the story of how Em and Cassie, best friends in college, deal with Cassie’s being struck in the head and knocked down on a dark path behind the college’s frat houses. Cassie says it was a frat boy taking revenge on her for publishing statistics about rape at the fraternity houses on her blog and for trying to get frats banned. Em and their good friend, Sean, a gay man, are enraged by this attack, and so are we—at first—but things get much more complicated as those layers of personality that Jesser referred to begin to reveal themselves.

It’s impossible to specifically describe the action of a play like Back the Night without spoiling the drama, but suffice it to say that Cassie becomes more than a victim, Em learns more about Cassie—and about herself—than she bargained for, and the issue of women’s safety on college campuses ends up having reverberations far from the campus itself.

The biggest danger in a play such as this is the playwright becoming self-righteous and strident. As Lopez herself said during the talk back, “There are no sides to this issue. No one says, ‘Oh, I’m all for violence against women.’” Thus, the issue deserves an examination such as Lopez’s, which is brave and complex enough to go beyond the simplistic one of perpetrators and victims—without, I hasten to add, ever being insensitive to victims.

This is not a “political” play with cardboard characters representing ideas; it’s a human play. Cassie and Em, and most of the other characters, continually surprise us. Lopez has said she likes to write about people with secrets, and Back the Night is full of surprising revelations—which, again, is why revealing the plot twists would ruin in for anyone who wants to see it.

And you do want to see it, if you appreciate tightly written, psychologically complex plays that make you think. Back the Night dramatically demonstrates that it’s impossible to completely know someone—even a close friend; that good people are capable of doing bad things; that we aren’t always honest enough with ourselves to face what we really feel about difficult experiences. It plays out these ideas with truly human characters, who love each other, laugh with each other, confront each other, try to figure out each other—and themselves.

If you agree that this is what the best theatre is all about, buy your ticket now. The play runs for less than a month, and the word is going to get out. Melinda Lopez and Back the Night are the real deal.

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