Burning Coal Theatre Company supports smaller local theater efforts by providing its facilities for the Wait ‘Til You See This series that runs between Burning Coal’s own productions. This fall, that second series kicks off with Jailbait, a super-smart recent play by Deirdre O'Connor, produced and directed by Christine Zagrobelny, a 2011 graduate of the UNC Department of Dramatic Arts. On its first night in the Murphey School Auditorium, the show was a tiny bit rough around the edges, but wholly absorbing nonetheless.
The story involves two 15-year-old girls, longing to be women; and two thirtyish men, longing not to be grown ups. Emmy, the bolder, more experienced and daring of the girls, is well played by Anna Vargas, a 2012 NCSU grad who looks barely 15. Innocent, thoughtful Claire is brought to glowing life in a remarkable turn by Tara Polhemus, who actually is still in high school, although she already has a long string of stage and screen credits. As girls will, these two drink up, dress up, make up, create some semi-believable stories about their fictitious college lives, and slip into a club, where they are to meet Mark. Emmy had met him the week before, when she’d gone clubbing with her older sister. To please Mark, Emmy has convinced Claire to go along as a date for Mark’s pal Robert. In her innocence, Claire has no idea that she’s being set up for a hook up.
Mark — Sean Brosnahan, ably portraying a never-married pick-up artist — has convinced his old pal Robert, who’s still suffering badly from a big break-up, that what he needs is a night out with a fresh, young college girl. Robert, in a nicely understated performance by Brian Yandle, is not at all certain about this. Neither man guesses the girls’ true ages. Bold Emmy goes all coy on Mark, but Claire and Robert hit it off.
What occurs is predictable, but the gentle candor with which everyone’s behaviors are probed is not. O’Connor’s acute characterizations and accurate, zippy dialogue are preserved from satire and rendered searchingly humane by her compassion for these souls, each with her or his own sadness. Zagrobelny’s direction is remarkably straightforward and realistic, delicate and nuanced even in the coarser bits. The scene between the two girls in the ladies’ room is outstanding in its verisimilitude.
Don’t expect precision timing on everything, or advanced vocal skills, or perfect staging for the 3/4 round space (sit on or near the short end), but look for the more important thing: clear-eyed observation of humans looking for love and sex. Humans — not jailbait and statutory rapist, not seductress and sucker — real live people, for whom the distance from 15 to 30 may or may not be unbridgeable. Refreshingly, Jailbait makes no moral declarations, instead presenting questions that may lead the viewer to her own conclusions regarding when and how one may behave morally (or not) in the morass of desire.
This highly recommended show continues through Oct. 7 and costs only $10. See the sidebar for more details.