'SHHHH' review — a quietly affecting meditation on trauma

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The sleek, bright lobby of Atlantic Theater Company's Atlantic Stage 2 and its scrappy, dimly-lit stage may as well be entirely different worlds. The intimate space has become a convincing studio apartment (Arnulfo Maldonado designed the set), and cushions in lieu of front-row seats make houseguests of the audience. The coziness borders on voyeuristic: There's a plainly visible toilet at the front of the stage, a bare mattress on the floor nearby, and candles and string lights casting their bits of light around, as though we've entered this apartment as a secret ritual is about to begin. This sense of intrusion is grimly appropriate for SHHHH, a play that lays bare the very personal process of healing from trauma.

A ritual doesn't come until the end of SHHHH, but Clare Barron's entire play is an exorcism of sorts. A collage of vignettes — chronologically ordered, but otherwise self-contained — focus on the young TV writer Shareen (played by Barron, who also directs) in the extended aftermath of a sexual assault. The lack of a traditional, fully linear narrative is fitting for the subject matter: Trauma fragments memories, and Shareen has a messy journey with no clear end in sight. For one, she remains friends-with-benefits with her assaulter Kyle, the cookie-cutter "nice" bro played with just a touch of self-unaware slime by Greg Keller. (He opens the show by telling Shareen a gory story while on the toilet, implying an indifference toward boundaries.) For another, her trauma manifests as a chronic illness that brings nosebleeds and diarrhea at the most inopportune times.

This is a good time to mention that Barron doesn't shy away from the disgusting, physical or emotional, in SHHHH. On the physical side, there's detailed discussion and semi-visible handling of bodily fluids — squeamish beware. On the emotional side, the disgust belongs to the women whose (male, always male) sexual partners who wear them down until they consent and don't listen to their desires — and whose beds they still find themselves returning to. Annie Fang and Nina Grollman discuss this at length as two friends in a food court.

Most of the yuck contributes to a "straight men can be the worst" theme, which might be more effective if not for the countless other media with the same thesis. Where Barron succeeds, however, is putting Kyle largely in the background after the first scene and instead grounding SHHHH in the grey area that the women are left in after dealing with predatory men — wondering why they go back to these guys, why they feel violated after technically consenting, perhaps not initially realizing they were violated at all. If you're not too engrossed in Fang and Grossman's animated, lived-in performances, look right and you'll see Shareen eavesdropping, sobbing, realizing. Barron gives a quietly affecting performance, made more so with the knowledge that SHHHH is semiautobiographical. Her owning of every stage of this story — writing it, directing it, performing it — alone is commendable.

But although this is Shareen's/Barron's story, SHHHH is Constance Shulman's show. Shulman bewitches as Sally aka "Witchy Witch," Shareen's sister who does magic rituals and ASMR on her off-hours from being a postal worker. Shulman is given free reign to be weird and wacky — she puts her voice-acting background to commanding use, with her every word measured, grave, like she's about to prophesy either your ultimate bliss or your impending doom. And she gets a journey of her own that includes her recording ASMR in the dark (another particularly voyeuristic moment), chasing Kyle in a fit of anger, and going on a date with the elusive Penny (Janice Amaya, fun).

Sally's loneliness doesn't manifest in the same way as the reserved and passive Shareen's, but they understand each other's deeply, and the actors complement each other well. In the aforementioned ending ritual, a blood-and-spit oath of sisterhood between the women, Sally ties their lonelinesses in SHHHH together and completes the play's exploration of post-traumatic life with, among the revenge and disgust and uncertainty, one moment of joy where the women are blissfully in control.

SHHHH is at Atlantic Stage 2 through February 13. Get SHHHH tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Constance Shulman and Clare Barron in SHHHH. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

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