In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) showed playwright Sarah Ruhl isn't coy. That play, which Southern Rep mounted in 2010, delivered plenty of laughs via Victorian-era characters struggling with intimacy as Dr. Givings discovers a new tool to treat women for hysteria. But it isn't a comedy.
Stage Kiss is a romantic comedy, and Ruhl displays an even more deft touch as she places her characters in deliciously awkward and ambiguous intimate situations.
An actress — a protagonist referred to as She — shows up for an audition and is nervous after a prolonged absence from the stage. She's only got a few pages of the script, featuring a kissing scene, and when she asks how they fit into the bigger play, the director tells her that the character she's reading, Ada Wilcox, has learned that she's got one month to live. Ada wants to be reunited with an artist who was the love of her life, and she's asked her husband not only to indulge that, but arrange it. Quickly absorbing the weight of the scene, She turns to face the young man who's reading the part of the long-lost lover.
She tries to find the right passion for the scene, and it's not easy. After numerous derailed or interrupted attempts, the director says they can skip the actual kissing and just substitute gestures for the rest of the audition. As She, Aimee Hayes ad libs a frantic puppetry of two hands kissing wildly as she gushes Ada's romantic overtures, and the show gets off to a raucous start.
But the kissing scenes and combinations have only just begun, and She is reunited on stage with an actual former lover, whom she hasn't seen in years. Stage Kiss is not a parlor drama, and there's physical comedy, sudden revelations and unexpected plot twists. Ruhl punches up the awkwardness with period-piece plays-within-the-play burdened with heavy accents and melodrama, and the comedy toys with theater world conventions and stereotypes.
"Stage Kiss shows a masterful playwright at work," says Hayes, who is Southern Rep's artistic director. "I love plays with romance, and she's great at understanding the travails and upheavals of love without being maudlin or kitschy or silly. It's adult and it can be harsh."
Besides The Vibrator Play, Southern Rep also produced Ruhl's The Clean House, another work with an odd vantage point on intimacy and humor as a Brazilian maid works on telling jokes while enjoying unique access to a family's lives.
Still without a permanent home, Southern Rep opens its season at Ashe Power House Theater, and the rest of its mainstage productions are at other locations. In November, it presents the premiere of A Song of a Man Coming Through at First Grace United Methodist Church. Written by local playwrights Joe Morris Doss and Andrew Doss, it's an account of a Louisiana man who turned his life around while in prison, and it is meant to be performed in a religious space. In March, Southern Rep will produce Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending at UNO's Robert E. Nims Theatre. Closing the season is Andrew Hinderaker's Colossal, about a football player who is severely injured and rebuilds his life while confronting his notion of masculinity and his body's limits.