Student actors explore meaning of 'Refuge'

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On Friday night, students, parents and community members alike swarmed Keck Theater for the second night of “Refuge,” a play directed by Culley Guest Artist Chris Fields. The play, which ran from Nov. 6–9, starred only four student actors, and the small, intimate venue created a sense of connectedness between those on stage and their audience.

Despite this community feel, the play was no fairy tale. The first five minutes of the show entailed sex, drugs and more than a few expletives.

“This is the genre of American realism,” Mellon Postdoctoral Theater Fellow Sarah Kozinn said of the show. “It shows the world as it is.”

“Refuge” explores the struggles of a broken family and the true meaning of love and protection. Amy, played by Lindsay Fisher (sophomore), is a college drop-out raising her two siblings after her parents’ inexplicable desertion. Her 15-year-old sister Becca, played by Shea Backes (first-year), is a raver with a drug problem, and her brother Nat, played by Alexander Waxler (first-year), suffers from frequent nightmares and mood swings due to a brain tumor. Rhys Hyatt (sophomore) plays Sam, a man Amy met at a bar. Unemployed and looking for a place to stay, Sam ends up back at Amy’s house to rent a room and eventually becomes her love interest.

In one of the play’s most memorable moments, Backes jumped off stage and into the audience to simulate a rave. The first of these scenes was a surprise for those sitting in the front row—red lights shone on Backes as she danced to the electrifying music, supposedly under the influence of drugs.

“I think the only scenes I felt uncomfortable with were the rave scenes when I was dancing alone in the audience,” Backes said. “While they were actually pretty fun to do, it also takes a lot of letting go of self-consciousness to dance the way you would in a dark anonymous crowd in front of a group of people.”

For many, the raw content of the play was unexpected but heart-wrenching. All four actors skillfully played out the drama of a family struggling to fill the void that its parents’ absence left, making an impression with every scene.

“I hope [the audience] left feeling that everything is okay, and that even when life seems impossibly hopeless, depressing and destructive, in the end you can find refuge in each other,” Fisher said.

The audience was invited to ask the actors questions in an open discussion panel at the end of the show Friday night.

One audience member asked the cast what they thought was hardest about performing in “Refuge.” Hyatt found the small cast size challenging. The four actors were on stage at all times, making costume changes tough.

Fisher was more affected by the realistic nature of the story.

“The relationships in the play are so complex,” Fisher said. “It is like real life—it’s not fantastical.”

During the panel, the audience gave a thunderous round of applause to theater professor Susan Gratch, the scenic designer and creator of the cozy wooden house in which the play unfolded. The set’s modesty complimented the message behind the play—the three siblings did not have everything, but they had each other.

Gratch invited Fields, who has previously directed at Occidental, to head up the production of “Refuge.” Fields stated that he thought Occidental was a good choice for the play and professed his love for the campus and students.

“I love Oxy students,” Fields said. “I think they’re cool. Occidental is smart, sharp and sophisticated due to the student body.”

Fields and the actors agreed that the play’s underlying message was about overcoming hardship. For Backes, “Refuge” is the story of characters who find safety and security in their families.

“I think the lessons of the play and its focus on family and love are important, and I hope most people understand that that’s what it’s about in the end: family,” Backes said.