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Fells Point Corner Theatre opens season with timely 'Stop Kiss'

As Marylanders prepare to vote on a same-sex marriage referendum, the Baltimore area theater community is thick with plays containing same-sex relationships.

This isn't a case of collusion (arts organizations are hardly known for coordinating their schedules, let alone developing joint agendas), but some folks may suspect a giant, left-wing conspiracy anyway.

Rep Stage just wrapped up its contribution to the subject; Performance Workshop Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre are soon to follow.

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Meanwhile, there's Fells Point Corner Theatre, where two women are the center of attention in "Stop Kiss," Diana Son's 1998 examination of self-discovery and gay-bashing.

Plays with lesbian themes do not appear nearly as frequently as those about gay men, which makes this mostly effective community theater production a particularly welcome addition to the local conversation.

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"Stop Kiss," constructed out of short scenes that move back and forth in time, follows unexpectedly intertwined lives in New York. The result is a sensitive take on issues of sexual identity and attraction.

The plot begins to spin when ...

Callie, who does traffic reports by helicopter for a radio station, offers to make room in her apartment for a pet belonging to “some friend of an old friend of someone.” The cat's owner is Sara, a transplant from St. Louis who is about to head into that foreign, danger-filled territory known as the Bronx to teach public school.

Callie's initial suspicion that the newcomer will be too dull to spend time with proves unfounded. The two hit it off. The slightly more seasoned New Yorker eagerly passes along recommendations to the newcomer, who seems increasingly exhilarated by being in the famed city and finding someone so intriguing.

Just a simple friendship in the making, except for the sensation Callie and Sara gradually experience, the realization that something else is going on, something deeper and a little scary.

Son gives both characters heterosexual back-stories, which complicates things for them. Some of those complications seem a bit forced, but the plot holds up well in the end. And little revelations about the women's distinctive personalities, the idiosyncrasies and pressure points, help to make them real.

Then there is the matter of the senseless violence that interrupts the gentle progress of this love affair. Son weaves this element into the play in skillful fashion, allowing the weight of it all to sink in gradually.

Ann Turiano anchors the Fells Point Corner Theatre cast with a nicely layered performance as Callie, persuasive in tone and gesture. The actress limns Callie's shifts from cool to confused, hesitant to hopeful, in telling fashion.

She is especially affecting in the hospital scenes -- note what she does with a blanket in one of them, a small detail that symbolizes just how much the characters have learned and loved about each other.

Samrawit Belai is not as assured in the role of Sara; the character's inner strength doesn't register solidly. Still, Belai shows promise, and she matches Turiano for endearing nuances in the pivotal sofa bed scene that captures the whole crazy process of falling for someone and not knowing what to do next.

Christopher Jones does vibrant work as Callie's casual boyfriend, George, conveying the at-ease quality of a longtime friend with privileges, and also bringing out the genuine affection that helps keep the two entwined.

There's an air of apprenticeship about the rest of the supporting cast, but everyone gets the job done. Steve Ferguson has some particularly telling moments as Peter, Sara's far-from-comprehending boyfriend.

Director Jay Gilman has the 90-minute, intermission-less play flowing smoothly through Jim Knipple’s economical set. Dan Cassin’s sound design adds a vivid touch to the production.

"Stop Kiss" runs through Oct. 13.

PHOTOS BY JUSTIN TSCALAS

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