This past Monday night was the second in our Staged Readings Series, this time a play called Consensual Relations by Norman Simon, and directed by me, Liz Siedt. As with, I think, all of the plays in our season, it raises a lot of questions- definitely more than it answers. And the questions posed to the audience of Consensual Relations can push taboos to the forefront in a way that definitely can raise some hackles. They certainly challenged my own opinions and expectations.
Consensual Relations is basically three stories. To start, the story of Sue, an eighth-grade math teacher somewhere in the American southwest, and Brett, her struggling student with dreams (perhaps his father’s dreams for him) of being a star baseball player. Sue and Brett, button-pushingly, fall in love. Or is it love? Can it be love?
The story of Brett and Sue together sets off the rest of the play, as they try (and fail) to run away to Mexico together. Sue is incarcerated and becomes a subject of a research study headed up by a clinical psychologist, Cara. Cara and Sue develop a relationship of their own beyond the clinical, and Cara is perhaps convinced that Sue’s love of Brett is real, and she orchestrates a meeting between the two that results in her resignation and Sue’s suicide.
Cara tells her story to a TV show host, whose idea of privacy and decency seems to be a little lax. But the TV show host speaks from what, I think, is often the audience’s perspective of Sue: this woman was a monster who preyed on a child. This wasn’t about love, this was about power. And I don’t think we’re wrong to feel that way. But…
In our discussions, the cast and crew at rehearsal and then with the audience after the reading, we talked about what consent actually means. It’s a large part of this play- judging from the title alone you’d probably be able to tell that. Our country, to my knowledge, has an age of consent that varies from state to state, but mostly hangs around 16 to 18 years old. Brett, in the play, is 14. Two years separate him from the age of consent. In fact, his character in the play is sexually active with his girlfriend before Sue even enters the picture. Are these two years simply arbitrary? Are people capable of consenting as soon as they become sexually active? Legally, no. But, as one of our cast members mentioned in our discussion, it’s not like there’s a magical switch, that at midnight on your sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday you suddenly become adult. And yet, what I think I struggle with most about this issue is that these are children, just on the edge of maturity, that we’re talking about. I know, I know, I’m sounding a little pearl-clutchingly panicky- Think of the CHILDREN! And I think it’s a little cliched and naive to talk about preserving the innocence of children, particularly teenagers. But an adult’s role in a child’s maturation is a delicate one. Can it ever be consensual if a fully mature adult has relations with someone who is just coming to maturity?
This reading was unfortunately very timely, as recent news about the alleged sexual abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky came to light right around the same time we started working on this reading. In Sandusky’s case, if he is found guilty, it’s hard to see how it could possibly be consensual- the abuse he allegedly perpetrated was against young boys who were a part of a charity he had founded, children who were probably dependent upon him for support that they could not get in their homes or communities. And these children were very young.
So for Sue, a fictional math teacher in a fictional play, we are supposed to perhaps find some sympathy. (Another interesting question all on its own- the playwright chose for Sue’s character to be female expressly because he felt that a male character who makes the same choices her character makes would be impossible to have sympathy for. Why does a female who perpetrates an act of sexual abuse seem less offensive, more sympathetic?) But she is a teacher, whose student is dependent upon her to learn and grow into an adult. And this is where the wrong lies, and where it becomes an abuse.
The play also attempts to address whether there is any kind of rehabilitation possible for someone such as Sue. And that’s an important question as well. If we have established that this behavior is wrong, then the purpose of legally punishing her should be to reform and rehabilitate, right? (Although that’s yet another tough discussion we could have- the state of our prisons in America.) How do we reform and rehabilitate a sexual offender? There are some dangerous lines drawn in Consensual Relations between the desires of these offenders and homosexuals- their sexual desires are part of who they are, can’t be helped. But then I think that- and I’m certainly no expert whatsoever- it again comes down to power. There can be true consent in a homosexual relationship, where there probably cannot be in a pedophile relationship (for lack of a better term).
There are no easy answers to the questions Consensual Relations posed. I’ve been thinking about them since the reading ended, and I am still no further to any answers. But what a grand thing for a play to be able to do, to pull up such questions that can sometimes make our stomachs turn in thinking about what we value and what is the difference between wrong and right. It’s a lot to take in, for sure.
Thoughts, friends? I’m sure a discussion on this would be very enlightening.