In Retraction, the hard-hitting new play by David Z. Gutierrez, Roya Shanks plays Wendy Cohen Dennison, an award-winning metropolitan journalist working for a popular, highly influential magazine called Heartbeat. The stimulus for the drama in Retraction, directed by Jen Wineman, comes with the news of a lurid sexual assault of a seemingly naive student named Lacey (Aurora O’Greenfield) on a South Carolina college campus. Specifically, the assault was a purported gang rape in a fraternity house. Motivated in equal parts by (1) her own vow to help victims of sexual assault, and (2) the desire of her ambitious mentor/boss Zach Lipsy (a perfectly cast Tait Ruppert) to acquire a tantalizing story, Dennison dives headfirst into her own investigation. The well-meaning reporter joins forces with a young woman named Gillian (played excellently by Gabby Policano), a former student who is a survivor of sexual assault and who is Dennison’s kindred spirit in the earnest desire to protect college women in the future. It does not take long in this fast-moving play, however, before it becomes apparent that this may not be a strictly black and white case. Spearheaded by the research of Victor Margulies (played with enthusiastically cocksure delight by Joseph Dardano), a journalist for the “Washington Tribune”, new details and previously unheard factors start to emerge. Without giving too much away, the end result is a black eye (and a lawsuit) for Heartbeat, ruined careers, and– worst of all– a possible step back for women’s rights in a culture where false rape accusations are exceedingly rare, yet true victims still have a hard time being believed. Many provocative issues are brought up in Gutierrez’ lovingly detailed play, including but by no means limited to the stigma of reporting a sexual assault, inaccurate statistics on sexual assault on college campuses, and the culture of pop culture journalism, where due diligence and facts are occasionally traded for opportunism and personal fame.
Retraction is explicitly based on a true story, and it didn’t take long for some audience members (including myself) to figure out just which story that is. The inspiration for this play came from “A Rape on Campus”, an inflammatory Rolling Stone article written by Sabrina Erdely which was originally published in 2014 and later retracted. Many of the details– the demonization of Associate Dean Nicole Eramo (reimagined here as “Dean Grasso” and played touchingly by Yeauxlanda Kay), the reactionary vandalization of the fraternity house, and much more– are strikingly true to the original story… and Retraction is all the better for it. Since the Rolling Stone scandal took place in 2014, the reactionary phenomena of “cancel culture” and social media “mob mentality” have only become more prominent. This makes Retraction even more relevant in 2022. The true story which Gutierrez’ drama was based upon was anything but a cut and dried examination of sexual assault. Faithfully, Retraction recreates all the nuances of that now-notorious story. The playwright restrains from making any of the characters “heroes” or “villains”, although many of them wax and wane in levels of audience sympathy as revelations come into play. The character whose story initiated the entire scandal, for example, comes across as more likely “troubled” than outright manipulative, enhanced by the well-directed “flashback” scenes of the character with the idealized object of her affection, Travis (played charmingly by Austin Weyant). Even in its 90-minute running time, Guiterrez’ script and the considerable talents of the actors merge to create full-blooded, believable characters with background stories. Combined with the environment those characters live in, it is not difficult to believe the resultant domino effect that we see in Retraction.
The ensemble cast of Retraction is excellent, with many of the cast playing multiple roles and still having their chance to spotlight their talents. In one scene, Gabby Policano as Gillian gives the stripped-down essence of what was really at stake with the investigation of Lacey’s story. Vanessa Cozart is a magnetic standout in a double role as a lawyer and a reporter. As Lacey, Aurora Greenfield is perfect in a complex role. With her striking appearance, made-for-theater wordless acting, and body language, Roya Shanks stands out as the no-nonsense journalist; It’s Shanks’ show all the way.
As important as it is entertaining, Retraction indeed tells a difficult story, where no one wins in the final outcome. The story, in fact, reminds me of the tagline for the 1994 movie Oleanna, directed by David Mamet, which also tells the story of sexual manipulation: “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong”.
Retraction, written and produced by David Z. Gutierrez and directed by Jen Wineman, continues May 10 @ 7:00 PM and May 11 & 13 @ 8:00 PM at Theatre Four on Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd St, New York City. Tickets: https://newworksfest.org/event/retraction/ Also visit www.CreateTheater.com and www.NewWorksFest.org for more information.