The ongoing reshaping and redefining of one's social identity is a process that reaches a fever pitch during the pivotal years of college. During this time, students finally break free from parental bonds, and become fully immersed in a world of conflicting ideas and value systems.
But although the search for the self is familiar to students at the University, it does not end with a diploma, and it often manifests itself in circumstances far more harrowing than simply going away to school. Marsha Norman's riveting play, "Getting Out," explores this theme of personal transformation through the eyes of Arlene, who has been released from prison after serving time for murder, prostitution, forgery and an escape attempt.
"Getting Out," one of four plays in the newly-established Helms Series, chronicles Arlene's experience during her post-prison rehabilitation as she struggles to overcome the violence of her past and the impediments of the present.
Under the direction of Emily Swallow, the play seamlessly integrates lighting, costumes, set design and sound to underscore Arlene's burgeoning sense of hope as the play progresses.
"At the start of the play, the lack of color reflects the fear and uncertainty Arlene has about starting over after her release," Swallow said. "As the play progresses and characters enter or reenter her life, elements of color are added."
Lucia Gajda's lighting also emphasizes Arlene's renewed confidence and the increasingly auspicious nature of her circumstances. "Arlene's world in the prison always is marked with shadows of bars, while Arlene's apartment becomes gradually lighter as she begins to find her way through the world," Swallow said.
The darkness of Arlene's past is revealed through flashbacks that illuminate her rebellious youth and her time spent in prison. These glimpses of the past act as a point of reference for her tenuous present, which finds her dogged by a less than supportive mother, the unwanted advances of an ex-prison guard and the entreaties of her former pimp, who wants her to work for him again.
"Getting Out" provides a revealing examination of the prison system and the psychological impact of incarceration, exploring issues that may be foreign to students living in the insulated environment of the University.
"I think it is an important example of theater as a social vehicle," Swallow said of the play. "Here at the University, most of us probably have very little knowledge of someone like Arlene, who has been through the prison system and all that goes along with that."
"I think the play is an important commentary on how the institution of prison shapes individuals and continues to influence them long after their release," she added.
Swallow and the actors involved in the production were untiring in their efforts to faithfully portray the tenor of an environment largely alien to them. The cast took a tour of the Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center in order to learn more about the experiences of both the inmates and guards.
Cast members also focused on abusive relationships, which are an intrinsic part of Arlene's past, and participated as a cast in the Take Back the Night rally against sexual abuse. The actors did countless hours of research on pimps, guards, psychiatrists and others in order to gain insight into the psychological composition of their characters.
"The difficulty we faced from the start and strove most to overcome would be the ability to honestly portray these characters," Swallow said. "My cast and crew have been incredibly hungry to learn."
Despite the disparity between Arlene's experience and the lives of most students at the University, the issues explored in "Getting Out" have universal resonance.
"I think that, despite Arlene's extreme circumstances in life experiences, any of us can relate to the identity search, temptations, struggle for strength and longing for redemption she experiences," Swallow said.
"Getting Out" will be showing at the Helms theater from April 26 to 29. It promises to be a compelling look at lives very unlike, yet strikingly similar, to our own.