For anyone interested in a whole range of issues, from women’s rights to collegiate culture to the state of American journalism, the story at the heart of Calamity West‘s Rolling was a big deal. The November 19, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone magazine featured “A Rape on Campus,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s report on allegations made to her by a University of Virginia student called “Jackie,” who said she’d been lured into an upstairs room at the local Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house and gang-raped as part of an initiation rite. Erdely’s piece caused a furor, first, because of the misogynistic savagery of the crime—then, only days later, because it had become apparent that no crime had taken place. Turns out Jackie made the whole thing up. Rolling Stone repudiated “A Rape on Campus,” the Columbia School of Journalism issued a damning study of editorial lapses at the magazine, and various victims filed suit.
According to a program interview, West became fascinated by the tale. She found herself wondering about the disgraced Erdely, ultimately asking herself, “What would I do if I were her? Where would I go?” Her answer, she says, was, “I’d go home.” And that’s the setting of this engrossing new play, receiving its world premiere now from Jackalope Theatre.
Home for West’s very Erdely-esque Valerie is only marginally friendlier than the world full of death threats and legal traps she’s just come from. Mama Janet’s Mrs. Claus looks belie an acid tongue and a keen sense of territory. Sister Molly is an angry, aimless, inconsistently recovering alcoholic who lies whenever possible, can’t keep a job, carries on with a married nebbish, and—amusingly—likes to point out the lack of politesse in the household. Having worked the night shift for decades, Dad is nothing more than a disembodied presence. Interestingly, Valerie regards him as her one ally.
Of course, Valerie herself is no paragon. Though she attempts at first to finesse Janet with therapeutic language and even capitulation (“Can we stop for like two seconds?”), she soon enough falls into the family trait of verbal cruelty, evidently carried down through the female line. And then too, her sense of journalistic ethics can be appalling. West makes sure we see how easily Valerie turns speculation into fact, how quick she is to rationalize her role in the debacle she did so much to bring about (“It’s not my job to find out if someone’s lying”). Based on Valerie’s behavior, Molly seems justified in telling her she’s no journalist—”just a liar who gets to write sometimes.”
Molly’s married nebbish, Danny, has his own reportorial ambitions, which lead Valerie into a subplot seemingly designed to prove the dictum, delivered by Janet Malcolm in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, that “every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” But that thread is as weak as it is predictable, dependent as it is on yet more misfeasance from a major publication. As bad as the media may look in light of Erdely’s folly and the continuing attrition of staffs, there really are editors who know enough to confirm a story.
But West’s state-of-the-journalistic-art theme is something of a red herring—a means to the true subject of Rolling, which is the ways in which women can internalize and enforce their own oppression. Janet, Molly, and Valerie are at their best worst when they’re tearing one another to shreds; Danny only thrives among them insofar as they give him a free pass for being a man. In the end, it’s that self-subverting syndrome that brings Rolling back around to “A Rape on Campus.” Because, after all, Erdely sacrificed her professional standards in order to ride to the rescue of another woman, and that woman took them both down.
Under Nate Silver’s direction, Dana Black’s Valerie, Ann James’s Janet, and Abby Pierce’s Molly form a triangle tight enough to bring out the sickness in West’s funny/nasty language without pushing it over into the schematic. Similarly, Pat Whalen pitches his Danny in such a way as to keep us off-balance even though we know exactly where he’s headed. v
Due to an editing error, this review originally misspelled the real-life reporter’s last name, which is “Erdely” not “Erdeley.”