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Communique: Pulitzer Playwright Marsha Norman's "Getting Out" Onstage At UNCW

Gina M Gambony
WHQR Public Media
Tommy Goodwin & Safi Veliora Omar

The final four performances of the play Getting Out are this weekend at UNCW’s Mainstage Theatre, produced by the theatre department. The show is by playwright Marsha Norman, who also penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning “'night, Mother.” This play, like “'night, Mother,” delves into the darker terrain of the human experience.

Performances are November 15-18. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm; Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are available online and at the door.

Getting Out centers on a woman who has just served an 8 year prison term for robbery, kidnapping, and murder. She’s depicted as both her prisoner self, called “Arlie,” and her post-prison self, called “Arlene.”

These 2 incarnations are represented by 2 different performers who are sometimes onstage simultaneously.

Other characters in the show include prison guards, an unfeeling mother, a pimp-exboyfriend … the character who brings light into Arlene’s life is “Ruby,” played in this production by Safi Veliora Omar. The man who loves her, "Benny," is played by Tommy Goodwin.

Safi: "Getting Out" is really interesting because it explores the life of Arlie and Arlene—who are the same person, but we see them at two different points in their life—and it's really interesting how it's depicted in a jail cell and in her home that she is now being given after getting out. They kind of work simultaneously to explore what she's gone through, how she's gotten to where she's at, and all her hardships. There's no filter to it. It's all just right in front of you, an in-your-face kind of thing.

Tommy: Yeah. The script really doesn't hold back. It really gives you an accurate depiction of what life in prison would be like for a female. And also what life after prison is like for a female. There's something just really awesome about watching this girl's redemption and watching her try as hard as she can, despite all the negative influences in her life, to be rehabilitated and start a new life as a new person. We've worked a lot with a stage being split in the overlapping, trying to find this communication. These two people, Arlie and Arlene, are the same people, but one is a rehabilitated, changed individual. I think we show that in the show.

Gina: So what I'm hearing is that Arlie and Arlene are the same person shown in different aspects of her life.

Safi: Yeah.

Gina: And what kind of interaction does she have with herself?

Tommy: Arlie is the younger version of Arlene, so Arlie's kinda shown the entire time while she's in prison, while she's trapped. She has interactions with guards, brutal interaction with guards, principals, and people that she's had a childhood with who have kind of messed her up emotionally. And then Arlene has more interactions with people from her past that have given her trouble, like her mother—she grew up in a really bad environment—and her pimp who was getting her work that got her into prison.

Safi: My character that I'm playing, Ruby, is almost her savior in a sense, because I kind of give her an understanding of: if you work towards being a new and better person, it can happen for you. Because the idea of a woman coming out of prison with like $30 to her name and having to recreate her life… everything that happens to her happens so young—and I think what works really well is seeing Arlie and how young she is depicted, and then seeing Arlene and you just assume the hardship that she must go through daily. And then I think the introduction of my character as a figure of a best friend is just really refreshing to see, because it kind of does show that you really can work towards trying to better yourself if you really want to and don't allow any hardships or anything to kind of stop you from doing so.

Tommy: Ruby is an awesome character because you watch this girl get kicked around her entire life and you know, it's a misunderstood kid. Arlie is just a misunderstood kid with no role models and no one really telling her what's right from wrong. No parents that really loved her, you know. Ruby's this one person that proves that when you get out, you have a shot if you have people around you, if you have support. And I just think that's what's so beautiful about Ruby's character as the one person that is like a flower in a desert.

Safi: Yeah, that's kind of how I see the character and how I attempt to portray it as well.

Gina: What about Benny?

Tommy: Benny has a lot of depth. Benny's actually the only character that's on both sides of the set. So he's seen with Arlie in her former life in prison and he drives Arlene home when she gets out of prison. Benny has good intentions but does the wrong things. He's not very educated. He grew up in a military family. He's a prison guard and he was kinda the one guard that tried very hard to build a relationship with Arlie, and she just was not on the same page. He always wanted to help her, give her gum, make her feel better, because he didn't really have anyone himself. So when he drives her home—not giving anything away—he makes some mistakes, with the intention of being with her long-term. He retires from the prison to go back with her and he makes some mistakes. And honestly I think it's just such a tough role to watch, from an audience perspective, because it's just this guy that you want to root for so bad, but you just can't because he does some bad things. And he makes mistakes. But his intentions are good.

Safi: I definitely feel like the character of Benny—he's interesting because yeah, he tries his hardest and he's very persistent in trying to be a good person for Arlie at that point. Someone to kind of lean on and be there for her because he sees that light in her that she can do and be better than she is now. And the confinement that she's in isn't helping her, but once it's now Arlene and Benny and it's on the other side of the gate, it's almost as though everything that worked before isn't working now. And then there's that frustration and that conflict and trying hard to be a friend, but then also wanting more. And it's that struggle between the two. And I think it must be a really difficult character to play as well as portrayed. I think the audience to come will probably have a tricky time understanding where Benny comes from.

Tommy: I don't really know what emotions to feel about Benny particularly, and I've been playing him for three months now, because there's just so much depth in him. It's one of those things where he so selfishly wants Arlene to be with him and to be more with Arlene and he just can't fathom the idea that she doesn't want that. She wants to separate from her past, and that's just something he can't get his head around and he doesn't understand. So while he does make mistakes and while you're angry at Benny a lot of the time, you also just feel for him. There's a part of you that's like, why am I still rooting for this guy?

Safi: Yeah, you still have a soft spot for him.

Tommy: Yeah.

Gina: Do you know anything about why this play was written, where the playwright was coming from?

Safi: So when I was researching prior to coming to America, I looked at—it was, if I'm correct, the era of the seventies and it was just after the sixties, which was very controversial in the times of America. Feminism was coming into play and there was a lot of things that were happening for women, and the role of women in society was changing very dramatically and drastically actually. So, I think Marsha Norman's intentions, I don't want to put words into her mouth, but I think her intention was to portray women in a way that isn't delicate anymore, and to actually understand the truth in what it is to be a woman and what it is to actually go through things that also men go through. Because essentially, in that time of feminism and in the time of things changing, women had to take on the role of men essentially. And so I think her depiction in "Getting Out" is just to show the raw truth of what it was to be a woman in the seventies, especially in the criminal justice system and being convicted for many different scandalous crimes that men were also convicted of. And so I think she just tried to portray that in its honest truth and to show that not all women are delicate and light and airy. We have substance and texture and meaning. And I think she did it really well and I think that's what she was trying to get at with this.

Tommy: I think that's one of the reasons I really wanted to get on board with this show and work on it, because Marsha Norman has a reputation of not holding back. This is the way she writes. Nothing's left on the table. Nothing's left up to interpretation. The writing is brutal. You really do get an idea of what this young woman went through while she was in prison and it's there, you know, that's her life. And I think Dr. Anne Berkeley, our director, was just the perfect person to direct that show because she's on the same very literal platform.

Safi: Yeah.

Tommy: I guess she likes to kind of push those boundaries and get us to a point where we're talking about real issues, and when an audience sees it, it's hitting them. It's not like they're walking out and thinking about it. It's hitting them in the moment and there's no metaphor for it. It's right in front of them.

Safi: Yeah. Unfiltered truth. It’s literally all on the table. Everything you see is what you get, and there's nothing that's been enhanced. It's literally just, "This is what was happening and I need you to understand that." We're not saying that you need to come out of this really sad or upset. We're just saying there's nothing we're hiding from you, because we need you to go through this with us. So I think Dr. Anne Berkeley was fantastic for doing that, because she's really straight to the point and just really honest with everything she says.

Gina: Safi, you are an exchange student.

Safi: Yes.

Gina:  Why are you here and how did you end up in the play?

Safi: So I'm currently studying at Rose Bruford theatre school in London and we have an exchange program where we can come over to America. Our whole class is spread out over America and we engage in American life. It's mostly to understand how Americans live and how it is to be an American. Of course, within the time that we're here, we can't get a full understanding,but it aids us in our acting and in our understanding of what it means to be an American, because essentially you can't really gain an understanding if you don't put yourself in said situation. And so I think this is the best way to do that. So we come over here for an exchange. We stay here for 5 to 6 months and we kind of just live the lives of the people around us. We study and we go about our days the same ways that people would. And I think it's a brilliant opportunity, because it allows for us to get involved in things like this. We get to audition for shows prior to coming out, and sometimes whilst we're already here. I was lucky enough to get casted in "Getting Out" and now I'm here doing the show.

Gina: And Tommy, are you a theatre major?

Tommy: Yes ma'am. Yeah, I'm a theater major. I'm a junior.

Gina: Why are you majoring in theater?

Tommy: It's just always been a passion. I was one of those kids that grew up trying to do three, four, five shows a year, sacrificing sports—even though I was never really any good at 'em—to try to do as many shows as I could. It was a no-brainer. As soon as I got to school, I knew. And I'm in a fortunate circumstance, you know, more so than I would say the average college kid is. I knew going into college what I wanted to do, so I can then start exploring and I have a four year head-start.