by Ann Greer
Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director David Muse notes in the program book for “Admissions” that the title has a double meaning. On the surface, the play is about the university admissions process. More importantly, it explores white privilege, liberalism, anxiety, and guilt in a humorous, wrenching, and literate way.
“Admissions” was commissioned by Lincoln Center Theatre and originally produced there in 2018. It won both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards that year. Playwright Joshua Harmon, who is in his mid 30s, has said he was inspired to write the play years ago, as he observed his family’s liberal white friends in Westchester County, just outside New York City.
Ephraim Birney and Meg Gibson
The play takes place during the 2015-2016 academic year at Hillcrest, a private prep school in rural New Hampshire. Bill Mason (Kevin Kilner) is headmaster and his wife Sherri (Meg Gibson) is dean of admissions. The Masons are proud of their efforts to make Hillcrest more diverse; they have tripled the number of students of color in 15 years, from six to 18 percent. Their son Charlie (Ephraim Birney) attends Hillcrest and is poised to realize his dream of going to Yale. Then Charlie is not accepted while his best friend, who is biracial and has fewer accomplishments, is. Charlie launches an extraordinary tirade that questions his parents’ values and achievements. As Charlie later reflects on his life of privilege, he presents his parents with a way to provide funding for a Hillcrest diversity scholarship that will dash their expectations for his future. It’s then that Sherri and Bill have to confront the depth of their convictions.
Ephraim Birney, Kevin Kilner, and Meg Gibson
Sometimes life presents an unexpected convergence. Two days before I saw “Admissions” I had a thought-provoking conversation with an African American friend. His comments would have fit right into the play. He talked about how important contacts are to getting ahead -- along with hard work and luck -- and how people of color often do not have the same access to those connections as white people. He also talked about the economic anxiety caused when you have to make your own way. The conversation and then the play made me wonder, as a white woman, how much I truly understand the challenges my friend and others experience. And what I can do to spark change.
Meg Gibson, Kevin Kilner, and Ephraim Birney
Muse says, “Put bluntly, this is a funny play dealing with whiteness and white privilege, written by a white man and performed by a white company of actors. I think Josh recognizes that the default white response of not talking about race is maybe not the most helpful thing for our society, and he is courageous or dogged or foolhardy enough to try to add his particular voice to the conversation.”
“Admissions” is now extended at Studio Theatre through March 10, 2019. For tickets go to studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.
Photos by Teresa Wood.
Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others. She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.