Play helps director heal

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, March 20, 2014.

Carrie Kirk was acting angry.

In a pivotal scene in the Kanawha Players’ production of “Extremities,” Kirk’s character Terry is in the middle of a heated argument with her roommates when she reveals she was raped as a teenager.

Kirk recited the lines with venom in her voice, just as she’d done dozens of times in previous rehearsals.

But this time, the words caught director Sheila Kerr’s ear. And Kerr realized something was wrong.

“I said, no, no, no. She’s not angry. She’s broken and vulnerable. This is the first time she’s laid it out there for the whole world to see.”

Kerr knew, because she also felt broken and vulnerable. Because earlier that day she had made a very similar confession.

She had appeared on a local radio show to promote her memoir “Distorted Thoughts,” a largely unedited compilation of blog and journal entries chronicling a lifelong struggle with various kinds of abuse.

During the interview, she mentioned that she had been raped as a girl.

Kerr, a first-time director as unfiltered as a pack of Lucky Strikes, didn’t realize she made the confession until she listened back to the interview.

It was the first time she had talked about the assault publicly. And sitting in the Kanawha Players’ theater that night, she knew exactly how Terry would feel.

So Kirk changed her delivery. She faced the empty theater, tugged her sweater a little closer and spoke the words with new fragility. When the scene ended, everyone in the theater was crying.

“Even the non-smokers were like, ‘I need a cigarette,’” Kerr said.

“It was a really intense moment but hands-down one of the most beautiful.”

The play, written by William Mastrosimone, is notoriously difficult for both actors and audience members.

Kanawha Players president Ginger Workman says the play is an exploration not just of violence against women, but also of justice and punishment. And it takes a long, hard look at all of those things.

“It’s not a play you want to get into if you have any past with some of these issues. It can be difficult,” she said.

The Players’ production of “Extremities” opens this Friday at 8 p.m.

The play opens with the main character Marjorie alone in her home, making tea and killing bugs with bug spray.

A man—later discovered to be a stalker that has been spying on Marjorie and her roommates for some time—walks through the front door, attacks the woman and attempts to rape her.

Marjorie is able to overpower her attacker with the help of the bug spray. When her roommates return, they find the would-be rapist tied to a chair inside the fireplace. The women then must decide what they should do to the man.

They could call the police, but since he didn’t succeed in raping Marjorie, won’t they just let him go? Wouldn’t he just come back?

The women also discuss killing the attacker, but there are obvious complications with that plan, too.

“There’s been times I’ve been in rehearsal and wanted to throw up. You feel like you’re watching a crime happen,” Kerr said.

It’s especially difficult for Kerr, a survivor of both domestic abuse and sexual assault.

“I feel like it has me written all over it, she said. There’s parts of this play, there are things that I’ve pushed down deep.”

But in a way, Kerr said that history has helped with “Extremities.”

She’s worked with the Kanawha Players since 2010 but has always stayed behind the scenes, building sets and doing makeup. She tried out for a role in “Extremities,” but didn’t get one.

But then the play’s director dropped out. Then his replacement left, too.

Workman, impressed with Kerr’s strong vision for the play, asked her to take the helm even though she had never directed a play before.

Kerr was initially concerned but has enjoyed being able to bring someone else’s story to life onstage, while giving it her own spin.

“I won’t lie: I’m getting something out of it,” she said.