The Education of Rebecca
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
August 12, 2007
I'm not opposed to watching truly unpleasant things such as torture on stage, but I believe in order to put the audience through such an experience a production has to have a truly compelling point to make. Branan Whitehead's play The Education of Rebecca crams a lot of unpleasantness into its 35-minute running time, but the point it is making is so vague that the experience wound up being little more than an endurance test for me as an audience member.
The story follows Rebecca, who is a shipping clerk (although this fact isn't really dwelt upon), as she is hooded, strapped to a chair, and subjected to humiliating questioning and mental torture by two unseen voices. At one point, a friendly voice appears, but this is quickly turned against Rebecca as she is forced to listen to the torture of her only ally. It isn't clear what the torturers want; they do talk about religion a fair amount, but not in any specific way. The male voice is upset by pornography and moral decay, but why is never really made clear. The voices want Rebecca to "break," but why and what that will accomplish isn't addressed in the story.
Without understanding who is doing the torturing or why, I was left with any number of possible explanations for what Whitehead intends to portray with his play, from the way organized religion can be dangerous to the nature of society to be cruel to those who it perceives as different, or even that those who brought torture to Abu Ghraib may soon turn such tactics against their own citizens. The program notes that Whitehead began the play in 1999 and then started working again in 2004, and this may have contributed to the muddled quality of the script.
As Rebecca, Tonya Jone Miller throws herself into a thankless role with admirable abandon, and Amy Ewing has a few nice moments as the kind voice.
Kerry Chipman's set design of towering white fabric is a poor choice, as the show calls for Rebecca to be frightened several times when her unseen tormentors plunge her into darkness, and the white fabric catches and holds light. The wide-open venue does not help in this matter either.
I understand the relevance of discussing torture in today's political climate, but Whitehead's play doesn't provide a context for any kind of discussion, let alone a satisfactory theatrical experience.