It sometimes feels as though smaller theater companies aren’t able to stage the most subversive material. I’ve often seen that the most groundbreaking art comes to the big names in the DMV, those with the most time and resources to produce or commission it. But I always want to be proved wrong in that thought, because there is so much power in communal efforts, and so much to say within our communities. That’s why it felt fantastic to see Unprotected, produced by the Pipeline Playwrights collective in Arlington’s Theatre on the Run last week.
Unprotected, a play by Jean Koppen, is a family drama that centers on gendered power dynamics. Just before throwing her brother a birthday party, Sarah (played by Diane Cooper-Gould) is challenged when she finds out that something recently happened to her daughter at school. The ensuing confrontation then reveals much about Sarah’s own childhood, forcing her and her family to face memories and traumas that they have never really even talked about. As a result, Sarah and her daughter, Grace (played by Sophia Colón Roosevelt), are able to grow in new ways, and special care is shown in the script to make it clear that though the trauma is real, these events were not something they should have had to live through.
Koppen bites off a lot in tackling these themes, and she covers it all very gracefully, in an impressive 75 minutes. She is wise not to try to resolve what’s happening — nothing in this play is tied up with a bow by the end — instead, she focuses on character growth and change, which feels like a smarter, more realistic way to reach her point. Her characters are interesting, and in the hands of the right actors, have enough nuance to make this take on harm, safety, and justice appealing. All of that said, though the play was written a few years ago, it seems like it is in its first stages. Koppen’s script feels awkward and stilted toward the beginning, with a lot of interactions that come off as expositional rather than genuine. Unprotected is a short play, assembled entirely around its conflict, so any moments not centered on that end up being a little clumsy. With some editing, those scenes could be a great opportunity to flesh out some of the characters, which would allow Koppen to be less heavy-handed toward the beginning and, at the same time, make Sarah’s epiphanies and growth feel even more satisfying.
Given all of this, the actors had a bit of a slow start, particularly because Catherine Tripp (who directed) does not pace the dialogue very quickly until the action is already building, the conflict already revealed. Once the actors are in the thick of it, though, they are very engaging. Cooper-Gould as Sarah really embodies the tremendous burden the character has been living under for so many years, and how it is both a relief and a hardship to address. Her eventual breakdown is convincing and heart-wrenching, played with great empathy by the actor. Nicole Ruthmarie plays Regina, sister-in-law to Sarah and mother of Zach, Grace’s cousin who we find out was a part of the incident that happened to her at school. Ruthmarie is compelling in her concern, her disappointment, her shock, as well as her festiveness toward the beginning of the play. She does a fantastic job of trying to connect with her fellow actors on stage and react genuinely to what they give her. Chris Anderson plays Ed, Sarah’s emotionally abusive husband, while Philip Krzywicki plays Doug, Sarah’s brother and Zach’s father. Finally, Caden Sterrett rounds out the cast as Zach, and does a great job of portraying a character who is young, ignorant, and scared of repercussions, his parents, and himself, but also steeped in the privileges his cis male gender has lent him.
Far and away, the biggest standout of the show is the set. Given a black box theater in the Arlington community space, James Raymond (set, props, costume design) creates a stunning and moody set. Two looming walls of peeling paint set the scene upstage, towering over the characters much as the themes do. They portray a wall of peeling paint, huge chunks of plaster stripping off to reveal a gorgeous peacock blue underneath. The rest of the set is modern and tactile, soft velvet sofas and sleek light fixtures, which gives the giant walls and few non-modern set pieces an ominous feeling — it’s easy to wonder what is being repressed in that house. Lighting (Emily Pan) is straightforward, solid for the source material, and costumes, sound design, and props are as well, though Raymond deserves a particular shoutout for making a cake that looked truly delicious enough for the characters to talk about it as much as they do.
And when they are not dealing with the larger ramifications of the themes of the play, the characters are given moments where they are talking about cake or work, windows into their inner world that help us understand them more. These moments help us see them as whole people, and prevent framing the play as a robotic and educational production more about its conflict than its characters. I do hope Koppen might have the chance to add more of that, but even if not, Unprotected is still affecting and important. Particularly as a production from a smaller theater company, it is vital in the way it gives voice to these issues while remaining an accessible play to put on. So though the show has a lot of growing to do, it is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.
Running Time: One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission
Unprotected plays through October 23, 2022, presented by Pipeline Playwrights performing at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA (then will stream as video-on-demand for two weeks at a later date). Purchase tickets ($15–$25) online.
The program for Unprotected is online here.
Thursday, October 20, 2022, 8:00 pm
Friday, October 21, 2022, 8:00 pm
Saturday. October 22, 2022, 3:00 pm
Sunday, October 23, 2022, 2:00 pm
COVID Safety: All audience members are asked to be masked while in the building.
Unprotected by Jean Koppen
Director: Catherine Tripp
Producer: Crystal Adaway
Stage Manager: Dana Maksymova
Fight Coordinator: Emily Jonas
Scenic, Props, and Costumes Designer: James Raymond
Lighting and Sound Designer: Emily Pan
Diane Cooper-Gould: Sarah
Chris Andersen: Ed
Sophia Colón Roosevelt: Grace
Nicole Ruthmarie: Regina
Philip Krzywicki: Doug
Caden Sterrett: Zach