WILLIAMSTOWN — If there’s one word that pops up the most when you talk with theater people about what they do, it may be “truth.” Through the staging of a carefully devised fiction, playwrights, directors, and actors aim to display a little piece of reality — to conjure up something that speaks to a truth the audience can see and perhaps recognize.
So, what about a play centering on an incident that two characters each remember differently? Where do you find the truth in a story that deliberately throws doubt on the actions it depicts?
Playwright Anna Ziegler, director Lileana Blain-Cruz, and two actors are working to solve some of those problems one recent afternoon in a rehearsal space at the Williamstown VFW hall. Ziegler’s play “Actually” begins performances this week at Williamstown Theatre Festival and runs through Aug. 20 in what is billed as a “co-world premiere,” following a production at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles this spring.
Alexandra Socha and Joshua Boone play Princeton freshmen Amber and Tom, who have differing memories of a sexual encounter in a dorm. The audience is privy to the thought process of each character, as an unseen disciplinary committee asks them about the night in question.
Unlike, say, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable,” in which the crux of an accusation is vigorously disputed (and, famously, never unraveled for the audience), both Amber and Tom agree on many of the basic facts surrounding their drunken experience. But through dueling monologues that range from private reflections to public testimony, the play reveals that they have vastly different attitudes about — and understandings of —those same facts.
This rehearsal begins with Socha and Boone seated near each other, talking through some of the complications they’re running into. Blain-Cruz, seated several feet away, gestures with her hands while speaking and sometimes stands up mid-sentence, drifting closer to the actors, seemingly unconsciously. Ziegler watches quietly from nearby.
“I feel like Nancy Drew,” Socha says, admitting some frustration, “and I found a key and I’m waiting to find out what door it opens.”
Blain-Cruz leans toward her. “We’re not debating the truthfulness” of Amber’s recollection, the director says, “we’re just launching it out there and seeing what that means. Yeah?”
In an interview earlier, Socha and Boone each credit Ziegler for creating two complicated characters. The actors’ task is not made easier by the fact they share the same space onstage, telling different versions of the same story, but the two rarely interact directly.
“For me it’s like,” Boone begins, “I haven’t jumped out of an airplane yet but . . .”
Socha jumps in, with a laugh, to finish the thought: “. . . It’s the theatrical equivalent!”
In her script, Ziegler specifies that Amber is a white, Jewish woman and Tom is an African-American man. Issues of race, class, gender, and privilege intersect in complicated ways here.
“We have two people from traditionally victimized groups,” the playwright, who is white, says in a separate interview alongside Blain-Cruz, “and so in sort of pitting against each other these two people who, just on paper, would elicit our sympathies, it forces the audience to listen more carefully and hopefully come to a sense of what happened based on deeper things.”
Amber has grown up with certain advantages inherited with her skin color and economic status, but calls on the relatively disadvantaged Tom, who is the first person in his family to attend college, to check his male privilege. “You’ve always felt good about how you look,” the mousy, insecure Amber tells her charismatic counterpart at one point. “You get to be comfortable in your own body. And that’s a privilege.”
The play is self-consciously cognizant of ongoing debates about what’s been described as an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s become a shared value in American progressive circles to give the presumption of truth to professed survivors of rape, in part as a corrective to the decades — actually, centuries — in which such accusations were routinely ignored or minimized.
At the same time, there’s a growing recognition of the history of false rape accusations being used in this country as a tool to control the behavior and social status of African-American men.
“Actually” lives at the center of these overlapping, conflicting concerns.
Boone, a solidly built man who seems on first impression to be as effortlessly charismatic as is his character, gestures at his relatively diminutive castmate. “Historically, accusations like this get levied and you look at the black man like: Oh, get him up outta here! He’s a big guy, you see how small she is?
“But this is presented in a way that you have to take who they are at face value, and then make your decision” about what happened between them, he says.
Some audience members may find that Ziegler’s gambit is itself problematic. At a time when activists seek to remedy a so-called rape culture on campus, is it helpful to present a story that dwells in the grayest of gray areas? Might some take away the lesson that accusations of sexual assault are, in the end, too murky to ever get to the bottom of?
“Just to be clear, that is not the message,” Blain-Cruz says.
“We’re always going to be considering what it’s like for a black man to grow up in this society. We’re always going to be concerned about young women going across campus and being preyed upon. The play is not attempting to answer these massive, massive questions,” she says, “but it gives us the ability to move in and magnify them, as opposed to saying that we have the answer.”
So it seems the truth to be found in “Actually” isn’t necessarily located in a close reading of the incident at its center. It’s in the telling of the story.
And no one ever said truth is a cure for doubt.
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Nikos Stage, Williamstown, through Aug. 20.
Tickets $58, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org