Belber also co-wrote the dynamic “Laramie Project” and its sequel, based on the true, shocking murder of gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tortured and left to die, Oct. 6, 1998. Two young men robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured Matthew, and he succumbed from severe head injuries, six days later. Playwright Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project co-writers, including Belber, left no stone unturned, exposing the homophobic murder’s effects on the town and the country. Their decade-long sequel revisited those people who were personally involved.
Several people gave their “testimony” of the murder, trial, and aftermath, and the “Laramie Project” plays became a bristling clarion call to teens, parents, humanitarian groups, activists, politicians, and educators. The international outcry resulted in Congress adopting hate crime legislation.
The plays’ structure worked well, because the characters are authentic. However, in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s New England premiere of Belber’s latest play, “Dusk Rings A Bell,” that monologue structure defuses the poignant revisit of two, single people who shared a touching, life-changing teen-age kiss 25 years earlier.
Under the watchful guide of director Michael Bloom, D’Arcy Dersham portraying cosmopolitan, 39-year-old CNN public relations executive Molly and Todd Lawson as Bethany Beach, Del., townie, landscaper-caretaker, Ray, deliver fine performances, but they’re hampered by Belber’s script. Oftentimes, each character talks directly to theatergoers but interacts sporadically.
Yet they’re the sole focus of Wilson Chin’s handsome, beach-swept, wood-slatted set until the end of the play, when they’re teen-agers again, bathed in an orange sunset, (thanks to Jeff Adelberg’s lighting), sitting on a lifeguard chair, sharing their kiss of a lifetime.
During the opening, Molly talks non-stop to us, rambling about who she is and how she formerly stuttered, until she conquered it at 15 years old. She left a note to herself, in the bedroom rafter of the cottage her parents rented for years, and she’s fulfilling her self-promise to retrieve it, 25 years later. To do so, she breaks the bathroom window, wriggles inside, finds and reads it, but she’s confronted by caretaker, Ray. After awkwardly recognizing each other, Molly and Ray embark on explanatory monologues. They stand at a distance. Their soliloquies are earmarked by spotlights.
She chatters away like a runaway train, while he’s more reticent, yet direct. Her story is successful, while his is bleak. During a teen-age party crashing, he watched his bullying friend savagely beat a gay guy. He froze. Ray says he tried to stop his friend, but was beaten on the head for interfering. The victim died. For his “crime,” Ray was imprisoned for 10 years, and participated in a restorative justice program, aiding his rehabilitation and redemption.
Ray was married to a nurse, is divorced, and has a 10-year-old son. He’d love a second chance at happiness with Molly, but she can’t ‘abide” his crime.
“Dusk Rings A Bell” is a compelling story of lost chances and lost love. Unfortunately, its message gets lost, too.
BOX INFO: Stephen Belber’s 95-minute, one-act, two-person play, appearing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, through Nov.16: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 9, at 2,7 p.m.; Nov. 16, 2 p.m. only. Adult language. Tickets:$20-$60. Check for special events, ticket discounts. Visit www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678.