In journalism, the editing mark “stet” instructs a writer to ignore a previous correction; it reverses a judgment. Fittingly, revision is at the heart of STET, Kim Davies’s complex drama inspired by Sabrina Erdely’s 2014 Rolling Stone article, ‘A Rape on Campus’, which claimed to describe a group sexual assault at the University of Virginia (UVA), but was later discredited and retracted by the publisher. Davies’s arresting examination of campus rape culture as reported by the media comes to the June Havoc Theatre, where, through the joint forces of The Muse Project and Abingdon Theatre Company, director Tony Speciale steers a superb cast into a moral danger zone where factual truth and emotional truth don’t quite square.
Baited by the prospect of her first cover story, Erika, a sharp and driven journalist, lands on a piece she thinks will sell: the alleged gang rape of a college freshman, Ashley, committed under the guise of fraternity hazing. Erika wades through YouTube’s hours of campus protest footage from across the country before choosing Ashley as her angle, and the sensational violence unique to this young woman’s story reveals the newsroom’s cold calculus of what deserves the front page. As Erika tries to spin an ugly crime into a compelling read, her journalism involves more dramatisation than verification; some interviews are even recorded without the speaker’s consent. Yet Erika’s blunders only complicate an already fascinating character; even without Jocelyn Kuritsky’s virtuosity in the role, Davies has written the type of female lead of intelligence and startling dimension that our American stages need. This is no accident: Kuritsky began The Muse Project to give female performers the opportunity and resources to helm their own dream projects—an admirable reaction to the gender disparity within NYC’s theatre community.
STET’s crisp script reads hyper-real as each character voices a fractured perspective of the public health threat at hand. Bruce McKenzie plays the cool and collected editor, Phil, who casually recalls how his own college fraternity used to slip girls double the alcohol as frat brothers at parties. Davies ensures that Phil’s reminiscing raises all sorts of red flags; he believes all rapists are sociopaths—a dismissive outlook more dangerous than any mixed drink. His exemption of “normal men” like himself as perpetrators reinforces the point that many remain oblivious to the nature of true consent. (Smoke, Davies’ previous hit play, also dealt with consent issues, but in the context of BDSM.)
Jo Winiarski’s set, Daisy Long’s lights, and Katherine Freer’s projections combine for a spare but sleek design that dares not distract from the drama itself. There are some darkly comic moments, but the audience might be too stunned by the gravity of the material to bust a laugh, especially faced with Lexi Lapp’s heartbreaking performance as Ashley. But when humour does land, it’s mostly from Jack Fellows and Déa Julien as activists at Ashley’s college (a frat boy-turned-campus leader and the school’s coordinator for sexual wellness services, respectively). They speak to Erika for the article separately, but experience the same dark revelation: the publishing of the article on the Internet will immortalize the crime—along with their contributions to the story.
STET’s sophistication skips an overt indictment of rape culture and opts for timely, vital discourse about our cultural narration of the crime: How do Erika’s responsibilities extend beyond her manuscript to include the possible re-traumatization of her subjects? And what will survival like Ashley’s mean after such public exposure? A rigorously crafted production in powerful pursuit of a national conversation, STET reminds us that our disturbing proximity to sexual violence demands serious sensitivity: if we’re taught to believe survivors, where do the facts figure into our sympathy?
STET is on until 10th July 2016. Click here for more information.