The first 20 minutes of "Extremities" is so intensely involving that the man in front of me, even closer to the stage than I was in this tiny theater, looked like he was moved to intervene in the action.
Perfectly choreographed to portray a rape about to happen, with the high-decibel accompaniment of the rapist commanding his prey repeatedly to tell him she loves him.
"Say it pretty, say it beautiful," he commands, while she pleads and begs for him to stop. He then observes that her "lips are too tight, they always make their lips tight." This chilling line nails him as a serial rapist.
So begins Michael Mastrosimone's play, first performed on Broadway in 1982, a screed mostly on the challenges a woman who claims rape faces not only from the legal system, but also from society itself that not so secretly believes women who dress attractively invite their own sexual demise. And many who believe this are women themselves.
Taylor Thorngate, who plays Marjorie, the central character around whom the story turns, is first seen in a sexy nightgown, lazing listlessly alone in her living room.
An intruder, brilliantly played by Victor DiBartolomeo, literally walks in through her front door pretending to look for a friend.
It soon becomes clear that he is there on his own business, and that he has been tracking his prey, spying on her, stealing and reading her mail.
Thus, if Marjorie is to survive, she's going to have to find a way to escape near smothering, a death threat, and worse, maiming.
She finds that way, and quickly the tables turn. The rapist becomes captive and throughout the remainder of the play, we are never sure who is the real victim of this story.
In this ambiguity Marjorie's two roommates, who enter the action sequentially, aid us.
First is the hapless and helpless Terry, perfectly played by Tatum Tollner, with eye-rolling Valley Girl cluelessness.
Left alone briefly with the captive rapist, he goads her into believing that Marjorie is stealing her boyfriend, inciting a resentment that aligns her far more with the rapist than her terrorized friend.
The second roommate, the reasonable and maternal Patricia, is a social worker trained to protect the injured, however distasteful.
Kirsten Clapp, also the director of the play, wonderfully plays her. Patricia maddenly identifies with the rapist's suffering at the expense of Marjorie's.
These two characters stoke Marjorie's significant stores of internal rage, now turned against them, and as they begin to feel the edge of her fury, they remind her that, "if it's his words against hers, his wins."
In a final blow to female solidarity, they accuse her of tempting would-be rapists by dressing "too loose, you know. You're not happy until men beg for it."
By now we know who the women believe is the real victim.
In the last act, victim and victimizer meld into one, revelations along the way blurring the distinction. In the end, the only one who looks good is the stalwart Patricia, whose humanity, even though misguided, is the organizing force of the play.
The performances in this play are unerringly strong. Although, even in a play as serious as this one, there are a few moments of comic relief.
Still, it's difficult to comprehend how Thorngate, whose portrayal of terror and anger is so immediate and authentic, emerges from each performance without the aid of a therapist.
In addition to her acting skills, she has an unusually effective voice. Its combination of clarion- bell metal and low-key ballast gives her an edge.
To the other actors go equal kudos. Clapp has made the most of the talent at her deft direction.
On opening night, only four people were in the audience. Come on, Monterey County, show your appreciation for those who put on such performances simply, it seems, for love.
For regional theater at its best, don't miss "Extremities."GO!
What: Stardust Playhouse presents William Mastrosimone's "Extremities."
Where: Stardust Playhouse,2115 N. Fremont St., Suite C,Monterey
When: 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from July 6-July 28
Tickets: $15 (for mature audiences) at stardustplayhouse monterey.com