Barrington Stage's 'Speech & Debate' a dark comedy

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PITTSFIELD — During a time when politicians, journalists and other groups are increasingly questioned about the veracity of their statements, a play about suppressing the truth may feel redundant and fuel even more rancor and polarization.

But Stephen Karam's "Speech & Debate," which, after a series of previews that began Thursday, opens at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage on Sunday afternoon and runs through July 29, aims to demonstrate that withholding one's feelings and secrets, even when they stem from traumatic events, can be comical and, when overcome, can bring us closer to unity.

Told primarily from the perspectives of three teenagers, the Tony Award-winning playwright's dark comedy explores how three high schoolers — Solomon, Diwata and Howie — in Salem, Ore., move beyond their differences to tackle a sexual scandal and their own insecurities by forming a debate club.

"It's by meeting each other through speech and debate [club], which all of them are kind of coerced into doing, that they begin to confront their deepest, darkest secrets and to basically reveal themselves to each other. And by doing that, they become more fully who they are," director Jessica Holt said during a group interview with the cast at Barrington Stage Company's Wolfson Theater Center.

The three teens are an unlikely trio. Solomon is an aspiring journalist. He is investigating Salem's conservative mayor, who has allegedly had sex with teenage boys. In this sense, the play is hardly apolitical: Salem is remarkably conservative from a social ("All you need to know about intimate sexual encounters is just don't let anybody touch you in your bathing suit area," Holt said of the town's sexual education mantra) and broader political standpoint. Karam's work focuses on the hypocrisy of these politicians and authority figures. Solomon obsesses over this incongruity.

"I think he's trying to figure out how they're able to do that, and in that exploration, maybe not knowingly, he's trying to figure that out for himself and how he can be doing that," said Ben Getz, who plays Solomon.

Diwata is more self-assured; she is an ambitious drama student who is working on a musical interpretation of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

"She is a very passionate performer and lover of theater whose talents are not appreciated by her school drama teacher, and she uses speech and debate as an outlet to fix that oversight," said Betsy Hogg, who plays Diwata and also has performed in "The Crucible" three times in her acting career.

Finally, Howie, played by Austin Davidson, is the school's first publicly gay student, but his attempts to start a gay-straight alliance group keep getting squashed. Edelen McWilliams, whose dual teacher/reporter role represents the only adult perspective in the play, says this lack of support system is typical in Salem.

"The adults care about these kids very much and are trying to help them and want to be there for them, but [they] just are not capable of truly being there for them in the limitation of this town, in the limitation of the school," McWilliams said.

This parental distance allows depravity to take root, which the three teens gradually unearth, along with their own secrets, over the course of the play.

While the subject matter may not appear to be fertile ground for comedy, the cast and director disagree.

"Really good comedy always comes out of pain," McWilliams said.

"We often kind of find a dark gallows sense of humor in order to cope and deal and push through and move on," Holt added.

"And I think that is still especially sharpened in high school students," Hogg interjected. "There's no one better at covering up pain or things that are huge in their lives than teenagers because all [they] want in the whole world is for everything to be fine and for everybody to think that everything's fine, so whatever you can do to make that seem true is what you're going to do.

"But ... once you're past that time in your life, you can see how insane that [was] and what you [were] doing to yourself and [you are] able to sort of release and laugh and enjoy the fact that you're outside of it."

The script, first performed in New York in 2007 and turned into a film that was released in April, has undergone a third revision to include more technologically current terminology, but the update doesn't overshadow the play's original intent, the director says.

"The message is we need to create safe and brave spaces for teens [who] feel like they're on the margins," Holt said, "and it's through creating those safe, brave spaces that we can start to contribute to a more inclusive society."


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