In a culture where everyone wants to be a winner, do the hardships of single motherhood, the economic disparities between the income of men and women, and the desire for a better life justify lies, opportunism, and destroying the careers and reputations of oneself and others? The world premiere of THE HARASSMENT OF IRIS MALLOY at People’s Light, written by the company’s Producing Director Zak Berkman, gives a distinctly male and highly provocative perspective on a controversial subject ripped from the headlines.
Set in Atlantic City, Berkman’s fictional narrative goes back and forth in time, slowly revealing the events that unfolded in a hotel-room meeting between a high-profile married politico and a struggling waitress/unwed mother of two, prone to making bad life decisions. A three-layered set design by Daniel Zimmerman seamlessly transports the action from home to hotel and back again, before a casino backdrop and the noise of clinking coins dropping from winning slot machines (sound design by Justin Ellington). Lisa Rothe’s well-timed direction builds the suspense, as a roster of flawed characters aim at all costs to hit the elusive jackpot in life.
The Emmy-nominated Scott Bryce turns in a fully three-dimensional performance as Senator Aarons, a presidential contender and former Navy hero who shows his transition from a privileged and powerful user of his subordinates to a sensitive and sympathetic, damaged and repentant man, following his candid disclosures to Iris Malloy and the public revelation of their intimate encounter. Julianna Zinkel plays the indiscreet titular character and Teri Lamm is her sister Cyd, working-class women from a bad background, who’ve never let go of the pain they endured at the hands of their dysfunctional parents. They argue and curse, support and resent each other, in a love/hate relationship that comes to a dramatic climax involving Iris’s sons. The challenging plot points call into question the rampant stereotypes of gender-based roles and societal expectations: for men, to engage in macho posturing; and for women, to have an inherent maternal instinct. These are compelling issues that will surely provoke discussion and debate.
Pete Pryor rounds out the four-person cast, adding comic relief as Iris’s co-worker Sticker, a sleazy high-fiving nerd whose surreptitious surveillance launches an unscrupulous get-rich-quick scheme, and distinguishing between his two other supporting roles–as Aarons’ assistant George, who facilitates the fateful assignation, and a reporter, who asks the probing personal questions at a press conference. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design skillfully recreates the bursts of photographers’ flash bulbs and the colorful flashing of casino lights, and costumes by Tracy Christensen distinguish between the positions and classes of the characters.
Before entering the theater’s performance space, a display in the lobby offers viewers some socio-economic data to contextualize Berkman’s plot: women still make only 79¢ on the dollar compared to men; mothers are the heads of over 80% of single-parent families; and over 50% of them live in extreme poverty. But along with the statistics quoted in the educational display, it has also been estimated that as few as 2% of sexual crimes reported by women in the US are proven false (the same percentage as with other felonies), but an estimated 90% of sexual assaults go unreported, because women fear being victimized again by the court system and in the media, accused of being promiscuous and labeled as liars and opportunists. That’s a very small percentage of false accusations–estimated at only 2% out of 10%–and a very large number of honest women—the overwhelming majority–who fear that their credibility will come into question, so remain silent.
While this play is not about rape, but sexual misconduct inspired by the Bill Clinton/Paula Jones scandal, we can’t help but recall a related case of “deny, deny, deny,” of multiple women eventually coming forward with the same accusations of serial behavior, and of hard cold facts like DNA evidence proving irrefutable, all of which seem to align with the aforementioned estimates. With that said, the scenario presented in THE HARASSMENT OF IRIS MALLOY could hypothetically happen, but it might not be the most likely. And, from a female perspective, we can only hope that this fiction doesn’t serve to promote the damaging incredulity women face when they do tell the truth about sexual matters, or reinforce their fear to speak out, as statistics indicate is most often the case.
[Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA] June 15-July 10, 2016; www.peopleslight.org.