“Theory” at Mosaic Theater Company reminded me of a quote from Room by Emma Donoghue: “Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.” All of these characters feared different things, but all persisted, some more boldly, some more timidly, but trying to face fears.
Directed by Victoria Murray Baatin, “Theory” by Norman Yeung is a young work and shows great potential.
“Theory” also explores that intersection where theory meets reality. And, as this play ably shows, giving theory a shot, without fully examining one’s own biases and privilege can lead to very unintended consequences. In other words, sometimes you need an exit plan.
Isabelle (Musa Gurnis) is a newly hired full-time professor and the promise of tenure track is dangled tantalizingly by the administration. Her wife, Lee (Andrea Harris Smith), is a tenured professor at this unnamed institution and sees this as an important step in the master plan of their lives she believes she and Isabelle have agreed upon, including pregnancy and stability.
At the start of a film class Isabelle is teaching, she informs the students that they will not be using the university-run and -administered electronic bulletin board, but one that is private and that the students will have full control over. This sets in motion a firestorm of anxiety and anger and soon enough—threats and Isabelle’s psychic unraveling. Fear is at the root of it—fear of the different, of the unknown, of the other. What Isabelle fails to take into account is that in envisioning this utopia of exchanged ideas and community, is that there could be a predator feeding off of her naivete.
Isabelle is a problematic character—she is white with a diversified class, but she is so convinced she’s right that she dismisses their concerns condescendingly. She doesn’t see that, instead of believing she is “freeing” them to explore new worlds. The students are willing to compromise to trust one of their own to be an admin for this site if she doesn’t want to do it, but she is horrified by the idea. The character is also very self-involved, deaf to other points of view, and seems to expect special consideration from her partner, the school administration, and the students. Musa Gurnis seems to be striving to find the bedrock decency in her character, but it’s not easy considering how one-note the character seems to be written.
None of the students seem to be other than stand-ins for certain types: the gay man (Benairen Kane as Davinder), the black woman who has succeeded so far by pursuing academics seriously (Tyasia Velines as Safina), the Hispanic man (Camilo Linares as Jorge), and the seemingly redneck white man (Josh Adams as Richard). The school administration is represented by Tom K. Nam as Owen, and he does a commendable job in his few appearances as a department head balancing the needs of his professors, the needs of the students (everyone seems terrified of teacher evaluation day), and the need to keep enrollment up so the university can be competitive. Velines takes her timid, sheltered, safe-space-seeking character on a true growth arc, which was rather unexpected. She was a brave character.
Smith’s character, Lee, seems like the only grownup in the place at times—she’s pragmatic, patient, committed. But in making her character so very pragmatic and Isabelle so nobly liberal and progressive, the author, Norman Yeung hasn’t given them much room to show their real humanity—and the conflicts and contradictions inherent in everyone’s personality that make humans interesting.
And when it comes to fear, the most fearful was Isabelle—particularly as more and more of the board’s posts became more personal and more threatening. But she was also fearful of compromising her ethics and trust, and the howl of pain and outrage that Gurnis gives at a critical junction was chilling—and heartbreaking. It was intriguing and sad to watch a grown woman in her thirties begin to feel fear in a world where she had been fearless before, and begin to realize that the world was bigger and more complex than she had truly understood.
Directed by Victoria Murray Baatin, “Theory” by Norman Yeung is a young work and shows great potential. It certainly evoked a number of spirited conversations among the patrons as they made their way out of the theatre and down the stairs—and that’s a great thing for a play to accomplish.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
“Theory” at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.