'Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes' by Hannah Moscovitch
Now onstage at Gananoque's Firehall Theatre, Gananoque
Credit: Randy deKleine-Stimpson. L-R: Romi Shraiter and Jonas Chernick
A boldly calculated risk in tackling this edge-of-the-seat drama. It’s a sexy production at the Firehall. Yet, there’s nothing sexy about the implications of the characters' actions.
Gananoque’s Thousand Islands Playhouse presents Hannah Moscovitch’s daring two-hander ‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes.’ Written in 2020 and winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Award for English language drama, the bold script is told from the third-person narrative viewpoint of Jon (Jonas Chernick), a lauded and well-respected college professor. He’s slowly completing a novel about turn-of-the-century lumberjacks while teaching and grading assignments.
Jon is twice divorced and separated from his third wife. He’s filled with self-hatred. He continually refers to himself in the third person while sharing his emotional myriad of rambling thoughts running turbulently through his head. Throughout all this personal upheaval, Jon continues to teach and try to go about his business.
The arrival of first-year student Annie (Romi Shraiter) in Jon’s class alters his life. She wears a blood-red coat. He develops an obsessive interest in this young woman who lives down the street from his house and passes by it daily on her way to and from the college. One day, Annie is locked out of her apartment. She hurts herself trying to crawl through the window and is severely cut. She shows up at Jon’s house, and he assists in helping her clean the wound.
This encounter dangerously notches up the sexual tension. The two begin a tempestuous and consensual affair in a matter of days. Even though Jon knows how highly unprofessional his behaviour has become, he embarks willingly, which could have dire consequences for his personal life and career.
I saw the premiere of this production in Toronto and had written that Moscovitch viscerally overturned the #metoo movement on its head with a sizable goose egg bump. This ‘Sexual Misconduct’ still does that. It remains an uncomfortable story of power dynamics dealing with the abuse of trust between a teacher/instructor and a student.
I finally see more behind Moscovitch’s script regarding narrative points of view.
The uniqueness of Jon referring to himself in the third person appears rather timely and odd (especially in our woke world of preferred pronoun usage). To refer to oneself in the third person means to distance oneself. To refer to oneself in the first person implies there is a proximity. If something is distant, there is no need to recognize its closeness. Implications of actions can be avoided in the third-person narrative. These implications are not nearly as immediate as if the first-person narrative is used.
Because Jon refers to himself in the third person, he does not have to accept full responsibility for his actions.
Director Krista Jackson reflects this recognition in her vision of the play, but she’s inspired by going one step further.
She skillfully maneuvers Annie’s quiet presence everywhere on the stage. If she’s not seen physically, Annie’s voice is amplified from the standing microphones on the stage. She's gracefully swanlike when she must exit the stage, and my eyes watch as she leaves. Annie will always be that grimly felt reminder of Jon’s inexcusably unprofessional actions that cannot be ignored this time around.
Jackson’s creative team of artists behind the scenes helped achieve this intense vision.
Michelle Bohn’s set design effectively resembles a strategy game board. Jon’s college office is on risers and appears to be the apex. Stage right of Jon’s desk (which also doubles as a hotel bed in another scene), there are books galore piled high, nearly right to the ceiling. The floor design is intriguing. There appears to be an ‘X’ with patches of artificial grass in the spaces between. However, where the two lines meet in the letter ‘x’ centre stage becomes a crossroads for Annie and Jon. That crossroads becomes an empty pit of torrid and dynamic sexual passion with a sense these events will not end well.
And what do you know? They don’t.
The periodic use of shadowy lighting design by Louise Guinand continues to notch up the heated intensity. There are two costume items Bohn incorporates which catch the eye. Annie’s blood-red coat indeed represents a fiery passion within the woman. Additionally, her skirt and blouse are shades of red at one point. A nice touch. The other item is Jon’s belt. At first, it caught my eye as it wasn’t placed in Chernick’s waist pant loop and kept flopping. And then it dawned on me why this works for Jon’s character – the man has probably lost so much weight and is not eating because he is stressed. Now, it makes sense.
Anita Nittoly’s work as Intimacy Director must be courageously acknowledged. Those moments of implied sexual chemistry and acts between Jon and Annie strikingly capture what’s going on; however, as I had written earlier, there is nothing sexy about this ‘Sexual Misconduct.’ It’s misconduct on both characters, as Moscovitch’s title clarifies.
Jonas Chernick and Romi Shraiter are the reasons to experience this Thousand Islands production. They deliver brave and daring performances and remain fully committed to the believable reality of the moment under Jackson’s subtle direction. There are many moments where Chernick’s Jon remains clearly in control. He senses and knows when Annie is coming on to him. Chernick’s Jon is the first to act on his animalistic response, while Shraiter’s Annie follows in kind. There are even moments of Jon gaslighting Annie.
There is one extraordinary moment when Shraiter’s Annie grandly pulls the power of the moment from Chernick, and she remains in control. At one point, she silently and determinedly exits from Jon, not saying a word, with her head held high and a look on her face which beamed, ‘This is not over.’ Chilling to hear the silence at this point, but it is a highlight because Annie could destroy everything about Jon.
Final Comments: ‘Sexual Misconduct’ is another piece that should be discussed. I know the Playhouse has held post-discussions with actors following performances. I hope there is one for this production.
A reminder that the play is not for impressionable youth. This production is, at times, unsettling. It does ask questions. But that’s a sign of the impact of a good play when questions are raised.
It’s worth a visit to the Firehall Theatre.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The production runs until October 1 at the Firehall Theatre, 185 South Street, Gananoque. Call the Box Office at (613) 382-7020 or visit www.1000islandsplayhouse.com for tickets.
THE THOUSAND ISLANDS PLAYHOUSE presents ‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes’ by Hannah Moscovitch.
Director - Krista Jackson
Set & Costume Designer - Michelle Bohn
Lighting Designer - Louise Guinand
Sound Designer & Composer - Sara Jarvie-Clark
Stage Manager - Loralie Pollard
Intimacy & Fight Director - Anita Nittoly
Performers: Jonas Chernick and Romi Shraiter