Kickshaw mounts a first-rate production of "Really"


Really, Kickshaw Theatre

Girlfriend (Shaunie Lewis) helps Mother (Pamela Bierly Jusino) try to capture the moment in Kickshaw's staging of Really.

There's a standard announcement before Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Really: Director Lynn Lammers reminds spectators to turn off phones and that “the taking of photographs is strictly forbidden” by the actor’s union. Before she can finish, a young photographer appears, camera in hand. Click.

But no rules have been broken. The photo won’t be developed. Calvin, the photographer, is dead.

That doesn’t mean he’s out of the picture. Calvin is at the center, the only character who has a name. Mother and Girlfriend may have outlived him, but they are defined by their relationships to him. Mother is visiting Girlfriend, a photographer who has invited her for a photo shoot.

Pamela Bierly Jusino’s Mother is fragile, so rigid that she might snap at any time. She rambles. She digresses from what she rambles about, unsuccessfully trying to cover her anxiety and discomfort with patter. But threatened by her son’s relationship with Girlfriend, and feeling superior to her, Mother also manages to be condescending. Jusino’s complex Mother only becomes sympathetic when she holds a shirt that belonged to Calvin and she weeps. Real tears, really.

In Shaunie Lewis’ understated performance, Girlfriend shows little affect, whether talking about Calvin or making sense of her own situation. “It’s not an uncommon thing to be alone, to be unhappy,” she notes, as if talking about a stranger.

Derek Ridge is convincing as Calvin, seen through other people’s lenses. He appears to be domineering, insensitive, sometimes cruel, and self-centered. He insists on poses for his subjects. He demands that Girlfriend be beautiful for him and little else. When Mother worries that Calvin would be upset with her, Girlfriend reassures her: “I don’t think that Calvin thought about you or about anyone, like thinking about what they did or didn’t do. I think he thought about what he did and saw what people do but didn’t think about it.”

Mother, too, is self-involved. After going on and on, she asks, “How are you? Did I ask you that?” She doesn’t wait for an answer.

Costume designer Jasper Richter has dressed the women in black and white: Girlfriend in a casual, patterned one-piece; Mother in an elegant white shirt, black slacks, and black patent leather heels. Calvin sports a tan suit, suggesting perhaps that what we see when we look at another human is more shaded.

Sibblies Drury, a black playwright, specifies that Girlfriend is black, the others white, and that’s how Kickshaw cast it. But the play treats universal themes of death and love, both romantic and maternal bordering on Oedipal, and this production doesn’t put race at the center.

Really, Kickshaw Theatre

Pamela Bierly Jusino's fragile Mother and Shaunie Lewis' understated Girlfriend in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Really.

The play is also partly about photography. Can you freeze a fleeting moment? If the photographer captures it, will it be the moment you saw in your mind’s eye? What will it be, really?

In her play Social Creatures, Sibblies Drury writes about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Characters barricade themselves in an abandoned building, where they can create a record of their lives by telling their stories on video, should they not survive. Really suggests that even with available videos, -- in this case, photographs -- the memories of these characters as they really were may not survive either.

Lammers chose to seat spectators around four sides of an intimate room, where they look at black and white close-ups on all walls, photographic images of the characters. In the site-specific playing space -- trustArt, a photography studio on the west side of Ann Arbor -- there are only the essentials needed to tell the story: white cubes that can serve as a table, chairs, and a platform; white shoe boxes and white shirt boxes holding photographs but not answers. (Lammers designed sets and props; photographer Leisa Thompson took the pictures.)

Most of all, this play questions our ability to know. Who was Calvin really? Was he an artist, ahead of his time? Was he sexist? Emotionally disturbed? How did he die? Suicide? An accident? Something else? Who really knew him? Is his story in those boxes of photos? Mother and Girlfriend are here with us, but do we know them any better? We don’t even know their names.

Today in this country, it’s essential that we don’t fall for blatant lies, but this play reminds us that in our own nuanced lives, it’s not always possible to find certain truth.

In Sibblies Drury’s three-hander, two people appear in each scene. The play is both novelistic and cinematic, playing with point of view and fading into flashbacks from Calvin’s childhood or his time with Girlfriend. Lammers leaves it to lighting designer Tyler Chinn to transition to flashbacks. While one character becomes silhouetted in dim light, unobtrusively looking through photos or being still without leaving the stage, the other two play out a moment, past or present, shifting fluidly through time.

Really, Kickshaw Theatre

Red reign: Girlfriend and Calvin (Derek Ridge) morph from an arguement to adoration in this scene from Really.

In a beautifully staged love scene, Calvin and Girlfriend dissolve into one another after a wordless argument. Chinn provided a pool of red light for Lammers, who choreographed the scene to a soundscape by Aral Gribble, which brings us right into the moment, along with the intro from the song "Hulahoop" by Weaves. 

Gribble’s visceral soundscape, a mix of rhythmic and raw sounds, sometimes loud and piercing, provides the emotional undercurrent of a play in which one character is posing, another either emotionally dead or unwilling to reveal herself, and a third that is dead. Chinn’s pallet, often primary colors, is just as intense.

Kickshaw is interested in material that goes beyond the tried and true and in giving voice to artists who have been underrepresented on the American stage. This is a wonderful selection, and the production is near brilliant.

Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and journalist, holds a doctorate in Performance Studies from NYU. She writes regularly for Live Design and other national publications and is author of Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of American Theater.

"Really" continues Thursdays to Sundays through July 16, with performances at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 3 pm Saturdays and Sundays, at trustArt Studio, 7885 Jackson Rd., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $27-$30, with discounts for those over 60 and under 35. Visit for tickets and more info.