STOCKBRIDGE — In 1975, the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s landmark “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape’’ helped to dispel longstanding myths about rape, fostering a broader understanding that it is, as Brownmiller said in an interview at the time, “a crime not of lust but of violence and power.’’
Certainly Raul, the would-be rapist in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of William Mastrosimone’s “Extremities,’’ savors the power he has over Marjorie, his intended victim. But he doesn’t have it for long.
Marjorie suddenly turns the tables on her assailant, and “Extremities’’ becomes the tale of her protracted revenge, while she ponders — as do we — what constitutes true justice for the man who brutalized, terrified, and dehumanized her.
In exploring that question, the playwright can be crudely manipulative. There are moments when “Extremities,’’ which was first produced in 1980, registers as not much more than an accretion of exploitative shock effects. At other points, especially when Marjorie’s two roommates enter the picture, you can feel Mastrosimone straining to reflect the wider culture’s prevailing attitudes toward rape in that era.
But if “Extremities’’ has weaknesses aplenty and ultimately generates more heat than light, it still stands, three decades later, as one of relatively few dramas that tries in a sustained way to capture how it feels to be the target of a crime that remains an ugly epidemic, including, as we’ve learned, in the US military.
Director Karen Allen brings a depth of knowledge to this play — early in her acting career, she portrayed Marjorie in an off-Broadway production — and it shows. Allen keeps “Extremities’’ sharply focused on its elemental showdown, which is not so much between Marjorie and Raul as it is between Marjorie and what she’s capable of.
Whether in communicating Marjorie’s early fear and helplessness as the captive or her ruthless resolve after she becomes the captor, Molly Camp delivers an engrossing performance.
Once she has Raul bound and blindfolded, and eventually imprisoned in a fireplace within the farmhouse she shares with two roommates (the set design is by John McDermott), an electrical current seems to be running through Camp’s Marjorie. Her body and voice tremble with rage as she contemplates the man she calls “Animal.’’ Camp’s eyes are wide and unblinking. The veins in her neck are distended. Her chest palpitates, her legs vibrate, her hands clench and unclench. Her very skin seems to be stretched to the breaking point.
James McMenamin, who plays Raul, etches a portrait in malignant self-justification. Hair slicked back, attired in a shiny windbreaker (costumes are by David Murin), McMenamin’s Raul wears an ingratiating smile when he first strolls into Marjorie’s house, pretending to be looking for a guy named Joe. Then his face freezes into a dead-eyed mask of malice as he commences his assault.
Even after he is thwarted and caged in that fireplace, this slimeball doesn’t quit. Raul tells one self-serving lie after another, trying to win his freedom by persuading Marjorie’s roommates, Terry (Kelly McCreary) and Patricia (Miriam Silverman) that he is the wronged party. He actually says: “Now I know how Christ felt.’’ Raul attempts, and partly succeeds, in turning the women against one another. This is where “Extremities’’ feels especially strained. Patricia, a social worker, resorts to ludicrous therapy-speak; Terry offers a revelation of her own that seems contrived.
Yet parts of “Extremities’’ still resonate. When Marjorie declares that “From now on, I make my own law,’’ she’s not just repudiating the role of victim; she is expressing a well-founded cynicism about the obstacles women face in a male-dominated legal system, governed by male assumptions. “Before they’ll believe a woman in court, she has to be dead on arrival,’’ she says grimly. (In that 1975 interview, Brownmiller described being jeered by a room full of New York police lieutenants when she addressed them on the subject of rape.)
Fifteen minutes before the performance I attended, an onstage prop — a framed embroidery — toppled over, knocking a glass bowl onto the Unicorn Theatre stage, where it broke into pieces. By the end of the evening, that shattered glass seemed a metaphor not just for a house that Marjorie was unlikely to ever see as home again, but also possibly for a life that would be very hard to put back together.