Annie Lambert was the perfect college student: dedicated to her studies, soccer team, and sorority, and unstintingly generous to family and friends. If only she hadn’t met Nick Wilson, her charming frat-guy boyfriend, who dragged her into an abusive relationship and, eventually, ended her life.
Or, if only her sorority sisters had heeded the warning signs in Annie’s relationship sooner. Such is the message of Chicago-based playwright Beth Hyland’s For Annie, produced by the women’s theater company the Hearth and directed by Emma Miller. For Annie presents a sincere exploration of the pressing issue of domestic violence and sexual assault on college campuses, although, theatrically, it tends to oversimplify and oversweeten its tale.
In Hyland’s dramatic conceit, we’re guests at the dress rehearsal for a therapeutic play performed by Annie’s sorority sisters, to honor their dead friend’s memory and process their collective guilt over failing to save her. Hopping in and out of roles on a mostly bare stage, they sketch out Annie’s golden childhood, sweet teenage years, and responsible decision to attend an affordable SUNY school close to home. “Annie” (Julia Greer, playing a freshman standing in for the absent protagonist) befriends Jessie (Sammi Katz), Nora (Shelby Green), and Kaela (Alex Najarian), and the BFFs revel in sorority sisterhood. Disastrously, she also meets Nick (Bartley Booz) and embarks on an idyllic college romance — until he gets clingy, then obsessive, then abusive.
Anyone attentive to the news will know sexual assault and gender-based violence are commonplace horrors of campus life, and that reality makes thoughtful artistic investigations of the subject — especially driven by women artists — much-needed. Miller’s cast brings high energy and an ensemble spirit to the production, and Hyland writes with compassion. But the play feels unfinished, making little use of the theatrical elements at its disposal. The meta frame — we’re watching Annie’s sorority friends re-enact her tale — could have led to nuanced explorations of the tension between the “real” story and the one onstage, of the way we replay traumatic memories, and alter them. Yet the only gesture in this direction — the late, abrupt entrance of the “real” Annie’s spirit (Liz Colwell) — is rushed and maudlin.
Hyland seems torn between artistic complexity and the desire to educate: The sisters trace Annie’s relationship using a multicolor chart identifying stages in the cycle of domestic violence, and toss out squares of crimson fabric each time a new “red flag” about Nick emerges. Still, it’s hard to fault a young company for tackling a difficult subject with spirit. We can all use a reminder about how to recognize those red flags — especially when there’s no sorority cheerleader to help us see them.
By Beth Hyland
Lucid Body House
230 Lexington Avenue
Through January 15