WARWICK, R.I. — For 15 years, Sherri Rosen-Mason has been focused on bringing diversity to the enrollment at Hillcrest, a boarding school in New Hampshire where she is head of admissions. She’s proud of her incremental success.
Then her bright, hardworking, white son is wait-listed at Yale University, while his mixed-race friend is accepted. The diversity dynamic changes.
“We’re not talking about diversity. We’re talking about you,” she says, now in fierce, protective-mother role.
That’s just the tip of the story in “Admissions,” playwright Joshua Harmon’s compelling comedy-drama, now in a not-to-be-missed production at Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre.
This is not a play that allows us to take sides. All sides are true, and concurrent with the unfolding situations on stage, we keep adjusting our own attitudes. Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella has the perfect word to describe what goes on inside our heads: whiplash.
But what entertaining whiplash. Harmon’s writing is insightful, pointed — and funny. In her Gamm debut, Director Bryn Boice, associate artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, gets the tone and texture of the action and the ideas just right, coming from a place of understanding for the characters and their feelings.
Moreover, the actors portraying those feelings could not be better. As Sherri Rosen-Mason, Deb Martin is the paradigm of a liberal New Englander, but when her intellectual ideals succumb to a personal situation involving her son, we empathize with her conflict. Martin gives an impeccable performance.
So does Jim O’Brien as Bill Mason, Sherri’s husband and the headmaster at Hillcrest. He is a little more laid back than his wife, but he also can be brutally direct, and O’Brien has a handle on all of Bill’s moods. Karen Carpenter plays Ginnie Peters, whose mixed-race son is the one accepted at Yale, and she brings life to the whole diversity issue from her family’s experiences.
Wendy Overly has a supporting role as Roberta, the Hillcrest staffer charged with assembling the recruitment brochure for Hillcrest. When Sherri complains Roberta hasn’t included enough students of color in photos for the brochure, Overly, in a welcome touch, makes the role her own by injecting innocent humor into Roberta’s indignation and her pragmatic score-keeping on ethnicities.
The actor who had theater goers buzzing after Sunday’s performance, however, is Jacob Osborne. A relatively recent graduate, ironically, of Yale University and a newcomer to the Gamm stage, he has the monumental task of playing Charlie Mason, Bill and Sherri’s wait-listed son. Charlie is transformed by the events in the story, and Osborne carries off the change with authenticity not necessarily written into the play. He delivers long segments of dialogue and as if he were speaking his own mind, while nailing the demeanor of a teenager.
Amanda Downing Carney’s costumes cannot be overlooked in creating the characters’ personalities. Patrick Lynch’s set design speaks to the Mason family’s privileged lifestyle but also easily accommodates scene changes without interrupting the flow of this roughly hour-and-40-minute production.
This play feels especially appropriate in the wake of the college-admissions scandal that’s been in the news since last March. But at its heart, this story is personal, and that’s what goes home with us.
Performances of “Admissions” continue through Feb. 9 at The Gamm, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Tickets are $45, $55 and $65 and available at gammtheatre.org or by calling (401) 723-4266.