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The history of Western culture is also a history of rape. This is the thesis of Michael Yates Crowley’s pointed satire on American rape culture, set in a high school and unfolding in the aftermath of its protagonist’s sexual assault by a star football player. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli and produced by the Playwrights Realm, The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias, is a clever indictment of the blinding misogyny that underlies how our society insists on discussing rape, and the damage we all suffer as a result.
Grace, played with bug-eyed sincerity by Susannah Perkins, is a fifteen-year-old girl. She watches a lot of television, wears the same stretched-out pullover every day, and wants to become a firefighter. Also, she was raped by her hunky classmate Jeff (Doug Harris). Grace flounders, bewildered, amidst a laughably inadequate support system: Her schmucky lawyer (Jeff Biehl) wants her to concoct a canned sob story about violent abduction; her pathologically anxious counselor (Eva Kaminsky) wants her to “stay positive!” Meanwhile, Grace just wants to talk things through with Jeff: What really happened between them? Did he mean to do what he did?
Then, at school, Grace encounters one of history’s most infamous rape stories, in Jacques-Louis David’s 1799 painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women. Story has it, the early Romans snagged wives through forcible abduction, absconding with the virgin population of the neighboring Sabines. When the Sabine men retaliated, the women’s leader, Hersilia, threw herself between her avenging father and her rapist. Fascinated by a rape story that somehow concludes on notes of marriage and forgiveness, Grace turns to Wikipedia for more about the Sabine Women, only to come up empty-handed (read: those articles were never written, because the story as we know it is a male fantasy).
Crowley surrounds Grace with broad personalities, like Bobby (Alex Breaux), the closeted football player who turns his internalized homophobia into antagonism toward Grace. Sarcastic “newscasts,” meanwhile, report on local occurrences, including coal-caused fire outbreaks that are suffocating the town, and which have been smoldering underground for years (a blunt-force metaphor for long-burning social trauma if there ever was one). And he punctuates the storytelling with delightfully campy interludes: In one scene, Grace stumbles hazily into a firehouse and meets a coterie of grunting, jacked-up firemen — embodiments of her own firefighting fantasy, but also of the macho attitudes that tell her it’ll never come true. Occasionally, Crowley’s insistent satire becomes wearing — he makes his points, many times over — but the excellent ensemble never wavers.
In Crowley’s defense, our culture hasn’t gotten the point at all. The 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, rape case inspired Sabine Women, but how many similar crimes, and how many unreported ones, have unfolded since? (If Betsy DeVos’s announcement last week to roll back Obama-era Title IX guidelines on campus sexual assault protections is any indication, the current administration is only steering the country deeper in this direction.) In Crowley’s world of screwed-up stereotypes, rape culture influences all kinds of relationships, not just those between victim and perpetrator. Grace can try to fight fires on her own, but it’ll ultimately, it will take all of us to stop the flames from erupting again and again.
The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias
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