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The Truth Is Grayer Than It Seems in San Diego Rep’s ‘Actually’

Beyond the simple facts of a Title IX case, this play opens a bigger conversation about the innumerable factors behind every decision we make


DeLeon Dallas and Emily Shain in 'Actually' | photo by Jim Carmody

I never mastered the “elevator pitch.” How do you distill a complex story into a quick soundbite? Common as the question is, I dread hearing “What’s it about?” because the answer to that can be entirely separate from “What happens?”

No quick summary of Anna Ziegler’s Actually can do it justice. For better or worse, it has the fortune of being a play “about” Title IX, student sexual assault, consent, and contradictory he said/she said perspectives opening the same month these lightning-rod issues have dominated the national conversation. But I’m here to assure you: If you’re weary of personal trauma being excavated before a skeptical audience, this play is not a polemic and spends comparatively little time in the “trial” itself. Likewise, if you do care deeply about seeing a just, nuanced representation of the women and men involved in these cases, nothing about this story can be reduced to a rage-inducing clickbait headline.

When the cast and set are this minimal—just two actors and two chairs—you can’t afford any slack. Lucky for us, Emily Shain and DeLeon Dallas are engaging storytellers, whose monologues are vivid and smartly paced from beginning to end, full of acute observations on the experience of being a college freshman from two distinct perspectives. They and director Jesca Prudencio are all MFA graduates from UC San Diego, and they clearly have a finely honed rapport that radiates confidence in their craft. The barebones set naturally draws greater attention to the lighting and sound design (by Chris Rynne and Melanie Chen Cole, respectively), and it’s impressive how evocative a single warped guitar note or sudden shift from crossed to parallel spotlights becomes when deployed at exactly the right moment.

Emily Shain and DeLeon Dallas are engaging storytellers, whose monologues are vivid and smartly paced from beginning to end.

Through seemingly tangential anecdotes, cleverly staged reenactments, and personal appeals, both our actors bring to life not only the events immediately surrounding The Night in Question, but a full portrait of who their characters are as people: all the unpigeonholeable factors that’ve shaped them up to that one crucial moment. It leaves room for a lot of humor and insight, and I think it’s fair to say this is the biggest point the play wants to make: That when the difference between innocence and guilt rests on a mere “preponderance of evidence” (i.e., “50 percent and a feather,” or far less than the legal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”), and the way that last feather falls depends only on conflicting accounts and subjective experience, it becomes impossible to consider all the relevant circumstances in the span of a single hearing, precisely because all the circumstances are relevant.

My other biggest takeaway was overwhelming abashedness, recognizing by experience how ill-equipped any of us are at age 18 to deal with all the societal and emotional issues wrapped up in sex and dating, and how futile it can seem to expect anyone to act in a self-consistent and accountable way while immersed in a culture of such constant, heavy drinking. You’ll leave the show sympathetic to and critical of both characters, unsure where to place judgment or even whether judgment is warranted, and grappling with the challenging notion that the truth of a matter is often more than the sum of its facts.

at Lyceum Theatre through November 4
Tickets at sdrep.org

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