You may have heard of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who was convicted on three separate charges of sexual assault in 2016. He was eventually sentenced to six months in prison, of which he served three, leading to a national outcry about sexual assault, the way in which American society values women, white privilege, and more.
But playwright Selina Fillinger wasn’t interested in a story that centered on a perpetrator. Inspired by the trials and the public’s response, Fillinger dug deeper to look at the world around someone like Turner. Specifically, what does a mother do when her son is accused and convicted of a violent crime, particularly against a woman?
In Something Clean, which runs through June 30 at Roundabout Underground, Fillinger examines the culture that creates the conditions for such crimes and inevitable aftermath for a family, survivors, and the community through the eyes of mother Charlotte (Kathryn Erbe), father Doug (Daniel Jenkins), and survivor advocate Joey (Christopher Livingston).
Though of course this story is painstakingly relevant and feels ripe for drama, what made you personally want to wrestle with it? It’s a lot to take on.
Selina Fillinger: I suppose it is a lot to take on, but it's something that we are all quietly, desperately, taking on by ourselves in the dark all the time. We all have bodies and our bodies are moving through space together. Every single person knows a person who has been sexually assaulted, and I would guess most of us probably know at least one perpetrator of assault, as well. For me the universal relevance and my personal connection to it are the same: I'm a woman with a body. I want to love, be loved, be intimate, be close, touch, be touched—but I also want to stay alive and stay safe. I spend a lot of time dreaming of a world where all of those things are simultaneously possible for all people.
What made you want to tell this story from the point of view of the mother?
I'm very curious about the making of monsters and the making of heroes. I'm interested in origins and I'm interested in collateral damage. In this case, the mother is both.
Tell me about the choice to make this a three-hander and why you have both of the male actors play two roles rather than adding actors?
I wanted the play to be intimate, which is easier to achieve with a small cast, and I love athletic theatre, where actors have to lean in to keep up with the play. To me, the double casting in the show is less about the similarities between Doug and Policeman or Joey and Frat Boy; it's more about Charlotte and how wherever she looks she can't help seeing Husbands and Sons.
How do you safely put a play like this onstage, in terms of addressing the trauma and allowing the audience to feel uncomfortable without being triggered?
First and foremost, I think you have to make the subject matter very clear through marketing so people aren't walking in blind to a play about sexual assault. Secondly, making the rapist exist only offstage helps the audience relax: we know this isn't a horror play where he might jump out of the closet. And finally, creating pockets of tenderness and humor for people to breathe.
What were you looking for in each of the actors cast for this production?
I think the thing that makes these three actors particularly remarkable is that they are all such open, beating hearts. They took on this ugly subject with such compassion, tenderness, humor, devotion. They have tremendous range and can move fluidly from comedy to tragedy. Charlotte, in particular, requires an actress who is very facile—emotionally, physically, linguistically—able to switch between worlds and tones with little more than a light shift. It's a deeply fatiguing part. Kathryn is stunning in her emotional availability and her truthfulness. She makes every line grounded, even if it's a complete 180 from what she had to do a moment ago.
Tell me about a moment in the rehearsal room that made you view your own work differently than when you had first put it on the page.
I don't want to give anything away, so I won't go into too many details, but there is this one scene where I always thought the arc of the exchange between Charlotte and Doug went from confusion to conflict, and that was it. But the first time we staged it, Dan made a choice I didn't expect: I looked up from the script to see Doug looking at Charlotte with such visible, palpable love. I didn't know that color could exist in that moment. It was totally arresting, absolutely believable, and ultimately made the later conflict all the more heartbreaking.
What did you personally learn in writing this play?
So many horrific statistics about sexual assault in this country. So many amazing facts about the unsung heroes who spend their lives helping survivors and making our world safer.
There is an urgent need for cultural change. How do you think the play can affect tangible change?
Perhaps it can put some language to those large, intangible feelings that make discussing sex and intimacy so difficult. I would be thrilled if the play could help people identify for themselves and their partners the kind of intimacy they crave. We rarely have the opportunity to contemplate from a place of calm how we want to be touched, looked at, seen. I hope the play offers that.