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Review: Sexual Assault as Both History Lesson and Satire

But she is stripped of these illusions by the responses of everyone around her. Monica, her cheerleader friend, hectors her to keep quiet, and the local media — personified by a buffoonish anchorman composite called The News — focuses on the potential damage to the Romans’ season. Her neighbors turn on her, too, invoking the classic, if contradictory, “she asked for it” canards: She was drunk when it happened. She shouldn’t have been alone with the boy in the first place. She didn’t say no, so that must have implied consent.

These and other details recall real rapes, especially the 2012 case of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, who was sexually assaulted by members of the high school football team while she was unconscious after drinking. The two teenage boys in that case were convicted, but sexual assault charges against a player in another football-related case the same year, in Maryville, Mo., were dropped. (He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to two years’ probation.) Mr. Crowley draws on elements from both cases to create a dramatic situation in which Grace can find no way to prevail — not legally, not spiritually — against an entrenched system of post-rape revictimization.

Abstracting that situation, though, are filters and frames that are too baroque for the play’s own good. Its overdeveloped thematic superstructure includes not only the Sabines, whose leader, Hersilia, makes occasional spectral appearances, but also Grace’s obsessions with abandoned mines, perpetual fires and hunky firemen. Other elements are underdeveloped: Grace’s father has left the family, disappearing beyond even the reach of email, and her mother, who works a night shift, is reduced to a rarely heard offstage voice.

Photo

Ms. Perkins with Jeena Yi, who plays a by-the-numbers frenemy.

Credit
Richard Termine for The New York Times

That Grace nevertheless emerges as a well-rounded character is partly the result of the touching conviction Susannah Perkins imbues her with. As she did playing a brainy, atrocity-obsessed teenager in Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” Ms. Perkins manages the tricky task of suggesting the inconsistencies of a character in the process of formation and deformation at once. Watch how she uses her baggy sweater as both security blanket and armor.

But if Ms. Perkins manages to shoulder the symbolic baggage that Mr. Crowley has burdened Grace with, most of the other characters sink under his satire. The Neanderthal teammate (Alex Breaux) is a ludicrously overcompensating closet case, and Monica (Jeena Yi) is a by-the-numbers frenemy. Jeff, played with daring sympathy by Doug Harris, is less monochrome but remains largely hollow for reasons that seem more political than dramatic. And the variously incompetent, venal and cynical counselors, lawyers and “male experts on rape” are obvious straw men.

By the time Mr. Crowley starts aiming his arrows at such low-hanging fruit as Wikipedia, you may feel, as I did, that the project of examining rape culture has taken a back seat to the project of making that examination less grim. Unfortunately, the meant-to-be-funny material is too unsophisticated for both the subject and the audience. Because we already know this territory pretty well, the satire seems obvious. And the Sabine material, jimmied into an art history class, feels for most of the play like footnotes.

That’s a shame because other elements, sticking closer to the main story, remain fresh and challenging. At several points, the director Tyne Rafaeli opens the blue curtains on Arnulfo Maldonado’s high school auditorium set to reveal mysterious scenes such as the one in which Grace and Bobby swim together in a lake at night. In their complexity and danger, these scenes let real discomfort into a discussion that otherwise seems too eager to say the right thing.

Not that saying the right thing is always wrong. A valid purpose of theater can be to show us how people survive the sadly common disasters of being human. “A good story, well told, can extend the space in which we are free,” the playwright writes in a program note. In that sense, Grace’s connection to the Sabine women, and the equivocal lesson she eventually draws from them, are useful — and give the play an unexpectedly strong finish. Didactic it may be, but in a crisis, as in a fire, one is grateful for even unsubtle signs marking the path of escape.

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