By Kimberly Rau
There are several sureties that transcend the generations besides death and taxes. Parents typically want better for their children than they had, and children often grow up vowing to be better than their parents. When those two trajectories collide, a third is clear: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Sherri Rosen-Mason (Deb Martin) and her husband, Bill (Jim O’Brien), have good intentions. He’s the headmaster of Hillcrest, an elite New Hampshire boarding school, and she’s the director of admissions, dead set on increasing the number of minority students who apply and attend each year. Bill backs her 100 percent, at least, until it comes to donating his own money to endowments or not giving a helping hand to a rich friend. Both are liberal, open-minded and well-aware of their White privilege…in theory. When their only son, Charlie (Jacob Osborne), is wait-listed at Yale while his best friend, Perry, a biracial student at the same school, is accepted, they’re forced to confront their own biases and their role in maintaining the status quo. And Charlie, full of teenage angst and frustration, is desperate to make sense of his situation, which makes his parents’ lives hell.
Without giving away the plot, Admissions works to keep you on your toes and will leave you with more questions than answers. The theater-going world tends to be a liberal one. As an audience, we’re used to siding with the “right” guy in political pieces. But what happens when the good guy turns the microscope on you? In a world where it’s easy to get on social media and champion the right thing, when appearing “woke enough” is paramount, actually doing the right thing can be much more difficult. Or, as Charlie puts it, “it’s easy to make room at a table you don’t’ have to sit at.” What does it mean to acknowledge your privilege on a global level, but still feel personally entitled to get ahead? What happens when your values suddenly have consequences at home? Who decides who gets ahead and who stays behind? What does it mean to actually have to sacrifice?
Directed by Bryn Boyce (and assistant-directed by Madison Cook-Hines), Admissions is a powerful show that needs to be seen. The message is important, and the cast that delivers it is incredible. Martin and O’Brien bring to life their complex, well-meaning characters in a way that makes you sympathetic to their confusion about words vs. actions. When you’re the director of admissions at a school and you pride yourself on rejecting White candidates to allow for more diversity, are you still allowed to try and pull strings to get your kid into his top college pick? Can you chastise your son for his rage against the system but then balk at the idea of him trying to change it? If you’re the mother of a bi-racial kid who did get in to Yale (Ginnie Peters, played brilliantly by Karen Carpenter), how sympathetic can you still be to your best friend Sherri’s frustration? Can you claim oppression on behalf of your Black husband and biracial child if you’re still accessing your own White privilege without even noticing?
And if you’re the rejected Charlie, how do you express your incredulity at what seems like a rigged system without coming off like a total jerk? (The answer is in Osborne’s brilliantly delivered monologue in the first half of the show, which earned him spontaneous applause at the performance I saw.) And you can’t help but feel for Roberta (Wendy Overly), the long-time Hillcrest faculty member who wants to make Sherri happy but seems to have trouble hitting the nail on the head. Playing a character who insists she “just doesn’t see color,” Overly walks a line between willfully obtuse and willing to learn that is perfect for the role.
In an age where what you do defines your character more than ever, Admissions is the think piece you won’t want to miss.
Admissions runs through Feb. 9 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401-723-4266.