- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

With the proliferation of reality shows, never-ending loops of news footage of disasters and crime dramas on TV, victims are our most cherished celebrities. They may not be as beautiful as Brad and Angelina, but victims of violence hold us under their spell with their voracious need, the entrancing beauty of their helplessness.

Playwright and D.C. native Gina Gionfriddo (a writer, incidentally, for the “Law and Order” franchise) delves into our fascination with the preyed-upon in her brashly funny, disturbing play, “After Ashley.”

The siren of suffering in Woolly Mammoth’s disquieting production, directed with skewed glibness by Lee Mikeska Gardner, is Ashley Hammond (Marni Penning), a conflicted Bethesda housewife and mother to Justin (Mark Sullivan), who spews sarcastic free-verse commentary as if he were Lenny Bruce trapped in a 14-year-old’s body. Frittering away her youth in a haze of pot smoke and festering discontent directed at her newspaper reporter husband Alden (Bruce Nelson), Ashley doesn’t know what she wants — only that this life isn’t cutting it.

Before she gets to find out for herself whether or not life begins at 40, Ashley is brutally raped and murdered by a homeless man her husband hired to do yardwork. Justin’s excruciating call for help makes him a celebrity, “The 911 Kid.”

In death, Ashley achieves an identity and saintly personality she never had while she was alive, thanks to Alden’s heartstrings-tugging book, “After Ashley.” The best-seller attracts the attention of a John Walsh-type TV host and producer, David Gavin (Paul Morella), who asks Alden to honcho a show for a women’s cable network, titled “After Ashley,” which would include “tasteful” re-enactments of the crimes, as well as violence-stopping hints.

Alden and David feel they are doing altruistic work — while shamelessly promoting themselves — but all the grieving Justin sees is lies. He is a champion for privacy in a time when everyone’s lives seem fair game for scrutiny, blogging and taping 24 hours a day. His actions throw a queasy light on America’s insatiable voyeurism, our perverse curiosity masked as our need to be “up close and personal.”

Do these video bonds with strangers draw us closer together or keep us from intimacies and connections in our own lives?

The character of Justin is, on the surface, an odd choice for an advocate for truth and moderation. He is a teenager — the period of our lives when we are perhaps most susceptible to intellectual and emotional extremes. He is sarcastic and resentful, as well as guilty of some of the same behavior he rallies so ardently against. Although “After Ashley” is overwritten and mines the same angry territory over and over again, Justin is a fiercely compelling character, and Mr. Sullivan plays him as if he were the pimpled hero of his own private opera.

Most of the other characters in “After Ashley” are caricatures, yet the agile cast adds nuance to their roles. Deanna McGovern gives a sense of tenderness and tingly openness to the sullen Goth girl Jill. Miss Penning’s brief scene as Ashley leaves an indelible impression, as does Michael Willis, playing an erotic video voyeur with an unanticipated air of the debonair and baroque, a courtly porn king.

“After Ashley” vividly satirizes a society that claims to be horrified by violence, yet aestheticizes and fetishizes these images by turning them into montages to be constantly replayed on TV and the computer, a phenomenon reflected in James Kronzer’s glossy set, a gleaming backdrop of digitalized images.

By keeping victims alive through the media, Miss Gionfriddo asks, are we killing their true selves?

***

WHAT: “After Ashley” by Gina Gionfriddo

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 9.

TICKETS: $30 to $48

PHONE: 202/393-3939

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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