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Intimate play with the power of Brokeback Mountain

Lorraine Graves   Mar-20-2019

Ian Butcher, right, the tightly-coiled lifer, contrasts sharply with the naiveté of the newly-arrived preppy inmate, played by Mike Gill.

Photo by David Cooper


Powerful. That’s the feeling you walk away with after seeing “Gross Misconduct” at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre. This play punches.

This SpeakEasy Theatre production is quality. From the moment you walk in, until you head out at the end, this play grips your attention and never has a false moment. Playwright Meghan Gardiner has crafted a fine work with impact.

Aimed at men, yet with many women in the audience nodding knowingly, “Gross Misconduct” offers gut punches of reality, punctuated with more laughter than I had expected. Every moment, the actors personify their roles, something hard to to when no one is more than three rows from the live action. DirectorKayvon Khoshkamtook the gamble to perform the play in the round. In Gateway’s smaller studio space, it means you can reach out and touch the actors. The blocking was as flawless as the sound. We could hear and see everything.

The direction, acting set and sound design, lighting as well as the implementation of those designs are flawless. Each blends as part of the whole, to produce an engrossing evening.

As we wandered into our seats, with a new, fairer system for the unnumbered seats, we saw someone lying on his bunk on the set, a square in the middle of the studio theatre, in the dim light. It’s a prison cell with two beds. Sounds of a hockey broadcast gently play in the background. Gardiner’s play starts abruptly with the sound of a buzzer. It’s time for the morning count at Milhaven Federal Institution, a collection of penitentiary establishments that has had a notorious reputation for “incidents” since it opened. At one time, the warden was arrested for drug trafficking within the prison.

Into the cell of the long-term prisoner, played with near-silent intensity by Ian Butcher, is thrown a young preppy, played by Mike Gill, who insists it’s all a mistake and his father will pay for an expensive lawyer to get him out within days. The prison guard played by Scott Bellis goes beyond the stereotype. As the young woman, Sereana Malani, offers a layered performance. All the way through, the writing refuses to go for easy answers or to tie things up conveniently but, in the end, it does tie everything up but, like life, in a surprising way.

While it is not like a John LeCarré novel where you are in the dark until the very end when all the pieces finally fall into place, Gardiner’s writing is more nuanced as the facts of the play gradually reveal themselves, woven through and among the story lines to reveal many truths.

“Gross Misconduct” plays with our preconceptions. It is not a pat piece of stereotypes. It challenges the viewer and through engaging the heart, teaches. It teaches compassion, in all its colours and nuances.

The contrast between the actors during the play and afterwards at the reception was startling. This is truly acting, writing and stagecraft at its finest. You will see nothing better this year.

One caveat is a trigger warning. This play addresses the subject of sexual assault. Though all of that action happens in recollection or off stage, every performance has a talk-back with a professional afterwards to help the audience process what they have experienced.

Like “Brokeback Mountain,” this is a powerful play we need to see. It’s not a giggle fest but it’s not hard to watch either. “Gross Misconduct” draws you in to each person’s story. You watch, intrigued by their interactions.

After the show, it was one of the most subdued opening night receptions I’ve ever attended but to a person, those in attendance expressed gratitude for Jovanni Sy’s programming of this play in the Gateway season. An educator at the Justice Institute said she will tell her students about the play and suggest they see it.

I predict awards for the writing, direction and acting in this production. It is rare to experience something this powerful in the theatre, let alone local theatre.

Running into a young adult in the parking lot, I asked what she thought of the play. An actor herself, she said, “I don’t think anyone in the play changed.” Whether you agree with that or not, the audience left this performance changed.

The studio space is intimate, the number of seats few. Opening night was sold out, even some staff couldn’t garner a seat. Get your tickets while you can. Also, arrive early so you can get your choice of the rush seating.

“Gross Misconduct” runs through March 23 at Gateway Theatre. For more informationclick.

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