REVIEW: Stop Kiss

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses homophobia, hate crimes, assault and slurs.

Diana Son’s 1998 play “Stop Kiss” forces audience members to confront the fact that behind every hate crime statistic is a person — a living, breathing human being who had dreams, who had a family, and into whose life someone violently intruded.

In the wake of major tragedies, particularly those involving marginalized groups, it’s easy to reduce people down to simple statistics. For instance, in 2021, the FBI reported 7,074 single-bias incidents against 8,753 victims in the United States, 15.6% (approximately 1,365) of whom were targeted for their sexual orientation.

Where Pipe Dreams’ production of “Stop Kiss” was effective, however, was in its willingness to put these victims front and center. Callie and Sara are regular people; when the two are attacked, and Sara is rendered comatose, the audience is made to feel the same mix of anger, sadness and guilt as Callie does.

“We jump backwards and forwards in time around the incident,” director Katharine Baumann writes, “following Callie’s journey of reckoning with her own identity and the world’s new perceptions of her.”

Baumann, for whom “Stop Kiss” is their directorial debut, was drawn to the play by its lack of fetishization of the female leads, as well as by its continued importance.

“The hate these characters face is unfortunately still relevant today,” Baumann writes. “Although we are no longer in the era of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and gay marriage is currently legal, there has been an alarming increase in legislation and outspoken opposition to LGBTQ+ rights recently, leaving many of us concerned for what the future holds. This story teaches us that we must remain true to ourselves despite the violent ‘othering’ we may face.”

Indeed, in the wake of a violent attack, Callie must process not only the trauma of the incident but also the prying of others into her personal life.

Julien Harris played George, Callie’s “friend with benefits.” Harris effectively realized the complicated mix of emotions that may emerge after a tragic event, with George wildly fluctuating between centering himself and desperately attempting to help Callie.

Kyle Kapusta played Peter, Sara’s ex-boyfriend who cares for her after the incident and clearly still has unresolved feelings for her. Kapusta’s performance was excellent, showing a genuine desire to help Sara but not necessarily for her benefit.

Briana Martinez played two roles: Mrs. Winsley, a witness to the crime, and a nurse in the hospital where Sara is staying. Martinez showed remarkable versatility, convincingly portraying both the holier-than-thou attitude of the former and the eclectic behavior of the latter.

Nate Earley-Ochwada played Detective Cole, who interrogates Callie and Mrs. Winsley about the events surrounding the attack. Given the brevity of the character’s time onstage, Earley-Ochwada made the most of it. Cole is shown to be impatient, perfectionistic, and most of all, entirely lacking in tact.

The centerpiece of the show, however, is the relationship between Callie and Sara, portrayed by Amelia Tam and Avery Hoffman respectively. Tam and Hoffman lent the characters a level of sincerity and honesty, which made the hate crime all the more gut-wrenching. The play presents many moments of intimacy and quiet domesticity between the two, contrasted with the constant intrusions Callie is forced after the incident.

It is in these human moments where Baumann’s direction, and the work of intimacy coordinator Lauren Dalton, are at their best. Callie and Sara laugh, cry, bicker, scream, but more than anything else, they love.

The scene where this is laid most bare is near the end of the play, after Sara has regained consciousness. Callie brings her a change of clothes and slowly, gently helps her put them on. Tam and Hoffman’s small, delicate acting choices were at their most effective in this scene: Callie’s love for Sara is shown not in a big, sweeping romantic moment, but in the smallest of gestures.

“It was really well done,” sophomore Nolan Bunger said. “It tackled a lot of dark themes, but there was a lot of humor. The acting was phenomenal, obviously. It was two hours but it didn’t feel like it.”

As Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre’s season draws to a close, they can take pride in knowing they continue to produce challenging, important work.

“I hope you come away from tonight’s show empowered to live authentically,” Baumann writes. “Speak truth to power.”