The fictional script of Interplayers’ production “Speech & Debate” starts with an epigraph drawn from Spokane’s recent real-life history: an excerpt from a 2004 online chat between a student who called himself “dannyboy” and a mayor who called himself “RightBi-Guy.”
Jim West’s sexual conversations with teenage boys and young men – and a computer forensics expert hired by The Spokesman-Review posing as a high school senior – formed the basis of the recall behind his ouster in 2005.
For playwright Stephen Karam, the scandal sparked a story about, on its surface … adults in positions of authority preying on high school students online.
The local connection is inescapable, director Marilyn Langbehn said, and the references recognizable by anyone who lived in Spokane as the scandal and recall vote unfolded.
“But it’s not a play about that. It’s not a play about Jim,” said Langbehn, who said she knew West when he served on the Spokane Civic Theatre’s board of directors when she was its marketing director. “It’s about being able to talk about adult subjects when you’re perceived as a kid.”
The play made its debut in New York City in 2007, when Karam, who would become a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Drama Critics Circle Award, was 27. It received praise for its keen observations; its cliché-free portrayal of teenage angst; and its dialogue, true to high school-speak down to each precisely positioned “like.”
Howie, an out and proudly gay 18-year-old from Portland, transfers to a high school in Salem (the one in Oregon, but witch-trial associations are intentional). Looking online for gay friends, Howie gets picked up by the school’s drama teacher. Another student, school-newspaper reporter Solomon, uncovers the connection. Meanwhile, a third student, Diwata, launches an online campaign against the teacher, who has ignored her (scarce) stage talents.
Silenced via other platforms, the three come together in a speech-and-debate club, which they aim to use to disclose the teacher’s behavior while also accomplishing some individual goals.
But the plot is “window dressing,” New York Times reviewer Caryn James wrote: “The play’s real accomplishment is its picture of the borderland between late adolescence and adulthood, where grown-up ideas and ambition coexist with childish will and bravado.”
Also, it’s funny.
In one scene, thanks to time travel, a witch from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is able to sing “Boy, whatcha doin’?” at a young, gay Abraham Lincoln. On the part of the future president, there is interpretive dancing.
The play stars Nich Witham as Solomon; Molly Ovens as Diwata; Brian Demar Jones as Howie; and Nancy Gasper in two roles, a local reporter and a teacher.
Langbehn has directed dozens of shows in the Inland Northwest. She left in 2004, taking a job running the marketing department at the California Shakespeare Theater, based in Oakland, and directing as a freelancer.
In a 2011 stint back in Spokane, she directed David Mamet’s “Race” at Interplayers. She said she’s glad the theater is choosing “risky” productions – in this case, one that covers sensitive issues “with a community that has a very visceral tie with the launching material.”
In addition to interviewing local students about their experiences in high school, the actors watched a “Frontline” special about the city’s mayoral scandal.
“I wouldn’t say (the play’s local connection) makes a difference to the performance,” Witham said before a rehearsal at the theater earlier this week. “But I would say it adds a level of importance.”
Added Jones: “I think we are ready for an audience and need one very much. I’ll be interested to feel the reaction that comes back to us.”