photo by Jon Gardiner | courtesy of PlayMakers Repertory Company
Julie Fishell as Gail Gillespie in The May Queen
The May Queen
Through Dec. 11
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
Molly Smith Metzler surely intended her play The May Queen
as more than an apologia for a stalker, but it’s hard to leave the current production at PlayMakers Repertory Company without the nagging sense that her critique of an annual, real-world rite of spring in a small New York State town, and of the social pecking order found in high schools everywhere, has somehow lost its way.
Metzler’s hometown of Kingston has named a May Queen every spring since 1916. The tradition continues despite the ritual’s possibly sinister origins as a sacrificial pagan fertility rite, one documented in a morbid poem by Tennyson and complex music by Stravinsky. Reflecting on her own experiences on the court of Kingston’s May Queen, Metzler noted in a 2016 interview that the honorific placed “a target on your head,” singling a young woman out for the briefest of accolades as a small community’s supposed ideal, followed by years, or perhaps even a lifetime, of being not-so-silently measured against that ideal.
In Metzler’s play, former May Queen Jen Nash (Andrea Syglowski) is forced to confront this reality. She’s returned home suddenly and begun doing temp work at a dispiriting “boutique” insurance company when her officemates, Gail (veteran Julie Fishell) and David (Rishan Dhamija), goad her into talking about her fleeting, bygone reign.
As Jen’s tale unfolds, Metzler’s script underlines the “queen’s” lack of agency throughout the election process. The criteria for nomination—how a young girl is viewed from a distance by Mike (Nate Miller), a high school football star—surely is meant to evoke genre theorist Laura Mulvey’s thoughts on the male gaze. And the degree to which David regresses into his tenth-grade obsession with Jen is creepy.
So it’s strange that Metzler is ultimately most intent on redeeming Mike, once merely a jerk in high school and then, after a head injury sustained in a car crash, Jen’s full-fledged stalker. (The same accident leaves his older brother—Jen’s actual boyfriend—in a permanent semi-vegetative state.)
Through his community’s support, Mike has overcome most of his injuries and bootstrapped himself into the top salesman’s slot at the agency where Jen’s been placed. When her sudden reappearance reignites thoroughly unwanted attentions that still seem benign to outside eyes, Mike’s officemates take his part and ostracize Jen.
Many stalking narratives go this way. But most don’t exonerate the stalker to the degree that Metzler does, through the plot device of his brain injury and by making his quarry culpable for an all-important but misleading photograph that supposedly triggers his years in pursuit of her.
It’s also odd that Metzler ultimately reverts to blaming the victim in this work, which PlayMakers has mistakenly labeled a comedy, and odder still that the playwright denies her title character the magnanimity she shows her problematic male lead. For some reason, a male deus ex machina appears in the final scene—not to save Jen, but only to provide a humble, provisional pathway out of the script’s self-inflicted cul de sac.
It’s a meager reward for a woman who’s faced as much adversity as Jen has. But apparently this critique of a small-town girl-child rite can afford no better.