Does time really heal old wounds? That’s the question Michael Perlman’s play, “From White Plains” attempts to answer in a new production opening March 21 at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.
Emotional sparks fly when Dennis Sullivan, while accepting an Oscar for best film, accuses former high school classmate Ethan Rice of bullying him and driving his best friend to suicide—more than a decade earlier.
Rice’s shocked response: “They’re saying that, I’m like, a murderer, that I should be put on trial. Charged with a hate crime. For something I don’t even remember.”
Words hurt and those same words can drive people to desperate acts, but what is the “statute of limitations” on long forgotten speech by an immature adolescent?
Perlman explained his reasoning, “The play came from that idea of excavating nuance from issues that seem to be black and white. We all agree with the premise that gay bullying is bad … All of it is based on the life experiences of myself and four original actors. I did not emerge from high school as badly traumatized as Dennis, but for anybody growing up gay, that constant fear and that time in high school when you’re afraid of being ‘the other,’ the secret is terrifying.”
Obviously, those high school years left a strong impression on the now 36-year-old playwright. He cited scientific studies on rats that found the animals never quite recovered from emotional traumas experienced during the “adolescent” stage of life. Perlman likened high school experiences to those experiments.
Perlman began writing the play in 2011 and collaborated very closely with the original cast, often rewriting entire scenes at night after rehearsals.
“I come from a directing background, so I understand the collaborative process of the rehearsal room. I may have come in with first draft, but I immediately went home to rewrite 40 new pages based on the conversation in the room. That process creates far more specificity in the characters,” he recalled. “There are a lot of verbal tics, ‘um’s and ‘oh’s, in very specific places in the dialogue as a result. The actors had to memorize all of that.”
Bullying may not be as prominent a topic in the national discourse as it was in 2011 after several teens committed suicide, but Perlman believes his play is still relevant.
“One of the great joys of this play for me is when people come up after the show, they talk about their own experiences—bullying or being bullied—not the show itself. That, to me, is what I hope my work does,” he said. “The fact that this was successful in that [way] makes me very proud. It can be the beginning of a conversation. My hope is that things are changing, even when it doesn’t feel that way.”
Island City Stage presents Michael Perlman’s “From White Plains” March 21 – April 21 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $38 at IslandCityStage.org.
By JW Arnold for SFGN 3/14/2019