Stop Kiss Delivers Electric Highs and Lows

by Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by Rob Merritt

Rachel Korach Howell as Callie (L); Brooke LeWarne as Sara

Coralville — The moment when friendship turns to courtship can be difficult to pinpoint. No matter how many significant glances you share, how many prolonged touches, you can never truly know the content of another’s heart. The challenging solution: to love yourself enough to take the chance. Stop Kiss follows Callie (Rachel Korach Howell) as she finds that courage twice over.

It seems at the outset that the two interwoven narratives of past and present trace inverse arcs. Somehow, the elements of Fourth Room Theatre’s production combine to draw them parallel. Though the end brushes against the beginning in terms of linear time, the plotting and pacing are elegant, and the single story, told by the company with commitment and joy, shoots like an arrow through the piece.

Callie is only doing a favor for a friend when she agrees to let Midwest transplant Sara (Brooke LeWarne) board her cat at her apartment, on her arrival in New York City. Sara has come to New York to teach, and to escape a life that was, she feels, too easy. As Callie undertakes the task of teaching Sara the ropes of the city, it becomes clear that Callie has a tendency for taking the easy path herself.

Callie speaks through her body as much as through her words. Howell’s physicality echoes every word she speaks; she embodies every tension and triumph. Sara reveals all through her face. LeWarne is fantastically expressive, with eyebrows that can speak volumes. The two have an easy comfort with each other, and the open set helps to invite the audience into their conversations. The first scene sets the precedent that the rest of the show maintains: we are more than flies on the wall, we are an intimate part of every interaction.

The first time-shift transition is a bit jarring. It’s one of the longer ones but, although off-putting at first, it serves as a first glimpse into the wisdom and elegance of director Kehry Anson Lane’s staging choices. For this production, the audience is collected behind the curtain, on the stage of the CCPA. Although comfortable at first, at an easy distance from the open living room set, the scene change makes it clear that we won’t be getting off that easily for the whole show. It is uncomfortable watching the props and set pieces being reset at such close range, without the cover of darkness traditional staging usually allows. That discomfort carries through into the scene, with the actors much closer to the audience, differentiating the harsh proximity of the present from the casual comfort of the scenes set in the past.

Rip Russell as Detective Cole (L); Howell as Callie

Lighting choices are a powerful ally in this, as well. The audience is caught in the edges of the stark spotlight that defines the second scene. We’re not sure why the harsh Detective Cole (Rip Russell) is being so demanding of Callie here, but it’s evident that demands are being made of us, as well. In a scene in the later present, we cannot avoid staring at the softly-lit Sara, confined helplessly to a hospital bed. I personally made the mistake of assuming, at the outset, that having the audience on the stage would severely limit the lighting options. If that was the case, then those limitations were handled expertly and with aplomb.

The full cast of Stop Kiss is a testament to the talent the Corridor has to offer. Eric Burchett is brash but tender as Callie’s long-time friend George. George is Callie’s easy choice (“We’ll probably get married,” she says without excitement, when describing him to Sara early on), but Burchett’s performance shows us a side of George willing to make hard choices himself. Rob Merritt as Peter, Sara’s ex, is a ball of restless energy, desperation and denial exuding from every anxious gesture. Katia Maxey and Rip Russell are a pleasure to watch.

Still, this show is about Callie’s journey, and Howell never lets us forget it. In the hardest moments, when you most desperately want to look away, it is impossible to stop watching her face. Howell has earned Callie her strength and resolve by the end of the story, and it is her performance that clarifies the parallel between the past and the present – the courage to love and the courage to keep loving, and the realization that both require knowing that you deserve to be loved.

Fourth Room Theatre’s production of Stop Kiss is a labor of love itself. The company has created a compelling and beautiful show, with standout performances and startling intimacy. The production has its imperfections – some muddy accent work, long transitions, anachronistic alcohol – but they are more than overshadowed by the skill and passion at its core. Stop Kiss runs for three more performances – Thursday, Friday, and Saturday September 5-7, all at 8:00 p.m. Get your tickets now by visiting the CCPA website.

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