“What would you do?” This is the evocative tagline for DOMESTIC, which debuted at an off-broadway black box space a few blocks from Times Square as part of the Midtown International Theater Festival in July 2012. The play, penned by Sarah Lawrence theatre graduate alum Matthew Klein, is the story of seventeen-year-old Jessica Powell, a babysitter who murders her employer when she hears him threaten to kill his wife. Experiences of domestic violence (DV) structure the play, which deals with the aftermath of Jessica’s act. The teenage girl, played by Kelsey Monson SLC ’13, not only fights back against “Mr. Hillson,” but also appears to be ambiguously victimized by her father Richard (the never resolved ambiguity of it being a testament to Monson’s acting). Then there is Leigh, a woman police officer who, accompanied by her even-keeled partner Mitch, arrives at the scene of the Hillson’s house to investigate a noise complaint. Leigh, we learn, knows DV second-hand from her childhood best friend’s home. Though none of the acts of DV in the play are enacted on the stage, the black box was filled with tension and the subtexts of unnamed pain, justified lies, and the cold reality of the law.
The play is one of questioned motives and messy ethics. One of the most striking examples of this is perhaps that Leigh, the cop, uses unorthodox interrogation tactics on both Jessica and her father to get to the bottom of this story. She gives Jessica false information to make her confess; later, she literally twists Richard Powell’s arm to bring him to shame. This and other such moments of “vigilante justice,” as Monson calls it, set the play apart from its CSI genre. Instead of a “who dunnit” structure like television dramas, writer Klein and director Roxy MtJoy, both alums of Sarah Lawrence’s graduate program in Theater, wanted to stage a more complex story: a “why dunnit” of sorts. To achieve this, the director had us inside the protagonist’s head from the very start: as the audience entered the theater, Monson sat centerstage with her wrists handcuffed, eyeing us with pure distrust as we walked to our seats. For the 45 minutes that followed, the seventeen-year-old’s story unfolded, while we the spectators asked ourselves: if we overheard a man, whom we knew to be abusive, threaten his wife’s life, what would we do? The play challenged my own understandings of violence–its meanings, its causes, and its effects.
For this feminist spectator, the play was also about the dangers of false oppositions: that of domestic vs. public, victim vs. agent, justice vs. crime. When we spoke I told Matthew that I thought his play was feminist because his woman characters, despite being in opposing positions of power, are linked by a tacit understanding, unified against the insidiousness of “privacy” in their experiences of physical and sexual violence. Indeed, each character breaks the rules to reach her vision of justice. And each, we can safely say, is successful.
I had the privilege of speaking with Matthew, Roxy, and Kelsey about DOMESTIC’s creative process, moral gray areas, and feminist messages.
Matthew, the writer: “This was a piece that I’d worked on a couple of years ago. I approached Roxy, whom I’ve worked with at SLC, and asked for her collaboration. We sat down at a table and did what all great collaborative teams do: we asked questions. We asked about the characters, their actions, and their choices. I did the hardest rewriting of my emerging career. Entire subplots and offstage characters disappeared that have been there since draft one over two and a half years ago–all because we trusted each other and knew what our story was that we wanted to share with the audience.”
Roxy, the director: “Before going back to school to get my MFA in Theatre, I was the senior case manager at a domestic violence shelter in Los Angeles, so I am very familiar with some of the issues this play touches on. While I never wanted this to be some sort of convoluted After School Special about DV, I do think I feel a responsibility to be honest and unflinching when it comes to those issues.”
“I think any play that has fully-developed, complex female characters is a feminist play.”
-Director Roxy MtJoy, SLC Theatre Graduate Alum
Kelsey, “Jessica Powell”: “Something that continually tugged at the back of my mind throughout the rehearsal process was Jessica’s relationship with her father. Matthew made it deliberately unclear in the script, which led us as the actors–and you as the audience member–to make our own choices about what did or did not go on behind closed doors in the Powell home. Ultimately I chose to play it as though Richard was physically and potentially sexually abusive towards Jessica. These are unequivocally awful things to do to another person, let alone your own child. Yet what really struck me was how much love existed between Jessica and Richard. At first I was really conflicted about this – how could she love someone who caused her so much pain? It wasn’t until the final week of rehearsal that I was able to make a choice that I could live with. I think to cope with the abuse she was facing at home, she created a carefully controlled image of her father to insulate herself. She tries to think of him as she remembered him as a little girl. This is how she attempts to take control of her situation at home, but she is still trapped in the reality of it. With Mr. Hillson, [the abuser she murders], Jessica saw the opportunity to have complete agency in a situation, and take control of the abuse in an extreme way.”
Roxy, on feminism and the play: “I am very badly paraphrasing here, but Theresa Rebeck once said something to the effect of feminism meaning women having the right to be as fucked up as men. I love that. I think any play that has fully-developed, complex female characters is a feminist play.”
Kelsey, on feminism and the play: “I would definitely say that DOMESTIC is a feminist play. Both of these women are not content to sit on the sidelines and let men commit acts of violence around them. Jessica takes control by killing Mr. Hillson, and Leigh takes control by essentially going rogue as a cop. While you may not agree with what they do, or the way they do it, these are strong women who are standing up for themselves and taking control of their situations.”
Matthew, on feminism and the play: “What I love about these ladies is that they have both external and internal conflicts. And what they struggle with inside themselves is universal: shame, humiliation, wanting to prove something to others and themselves. … I think that I definitely was tackling institutional discrimination against women, be that institution the police or the nuclear family. It influenced my choices and helped structure their conflicts and hopefully that universality of being judged unfairly and unjustly sparked some understanding and empathy for the characters.”
“I want you to ask the question, ‘Why do I assume she’s lying?’” -Writer Matthew Klein
Matthew, on the many unanswered ethical questions of this play: “I want you to ask the question ‘Do I believe her?’ and then ask yourself the question, ‘Wait, why am I so inclined to believe her?’ or vice versa, ‘Why do I assume she’s lying?’ I think evidence is given to support either path of thought. I don’t like giving clear cut answers. I love the gray. We live in the gray. All of us. And I want the audience to be engaged. I want one person to believe Jessica and another to think she’s lying, because I want the audience to learn something about themselves that maybe they didn’t know before.”
Kelsey, on her character’s act of murder: “While I, Kelsey, right now, could not imagine killing someone, I can’t say in any definitive way that there are absolutely no circumstances that could lead me to commit murder. Even in my first reading of the script, I was instantly on Jessica’s side even though I am staunchly anti-murder. Jessica is clearly a complex individual, whose motivations and desires seemed to change with every new reading of the script. But in the end, I was always completely on her side. Though I am still very conflicted about the idea of justifiable murder, Jessica and her story were compelling enough to convince me that her actions, though morally wrong, were justified.”
Matthew, on staging DV: “The point of the piece, for us, wasn’t about the acts of violence, but the acts of healing, surviving, and coping. And how those actions inform our choices and lead us down paths to decisions we might not have made before. Which means if you make the violence too explicit, people just focus on the violence and not as much the consequences. To see a 17 year-old girl beaten onstage or commit murder onstage is very powerful, very evocative, but that’s not the story. The story is what she does next.”
Emma Staffaroni is a second year graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College and co-edits this magazine. Her heroes include Frieda Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Octavia Butler, and Barbara Kingsolver. Emma enjoys post-it notes, board games, and museum gift shops. She can be reached at estaffaroni[at]gm[dot]slc[dot]edu.