An interesting congruity occurred the morning after I finished reading the script of “Emerson High,” Jim Knable’s examination of forbidden love between a teacher and a student which will be performed this month in Poughkeepsie by Half Moon Theatre. The front page of the Kingston Freeman bore this headline: “Teacher, 39, charged with raping student, 16.” The circumstances between the fictional and real-life stories are markedly similar: A male teacher in his 30s has an ongoing sexual relationship with an underage girl. (In “Emerson High,” the student, Gina, played by Marie-France Arcilla, is 16, and the teacher, Mr. Hagan, played by Andrew Dolan, is 34.)
The word “rape” does not appear in the dialog of Knable’s play; it’s used three times in the 400-word Freeman article about the accused Ellenville teacher who engaged in multiple sexual acts with a student this summer. The rape referred to in this instance is statutory rape, not forcible rape. And here’s where it gets sticky: Statutory rape laws are based on the idea that a minor cannot consent to sex. The law assumes that even if he or she willingly engages in sex with an adult, there must be some form of coercion involved as a minor does not have the experience to understand the consequences of their actions or the defense mechanisms that (in most cases) protect adults from sexual predation.
And this goes to the heart of Knable’s approach to the relationship between 16-year-old Gina and her band teacher, Mr. Hagan. What if such a relationship could actually be consensual? Can there be an exception to the rule?
Knable takes his cue from the father of transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings make a brief appearance in the play. Knable overlays transcendentalism’s central idea—that one needs to transcend established doctrines and rely on one’s own intuition of what’s right and wrong—on the illicit relationship, asking the playgoer to withhold judgment.
To be clear, “Emerson High” is no apologia for sex with underage girls. The play’s characters come to grief in all the ways you expect, and the illicit relationship on founders on the rocks of conventional morality.
The play is directed by Jeremy Dobrish, who has a longstanding relationship with Half Moon Theater. Marie-France Arcilla and Andrew Dolan are reprising their roles from the original production, when the play was the first selection for the 2008 NYU Dramatic Writing Behind the Scenes Showcase. Molly Katz, a founding member of Half Moon Theatre and its producing director, will play Ms. Galloway, another teacher at Emerson High. Millbrook native Tim Dowd plays Gina’s jealous ex-boyfriend Brian.
The Half Moon Theatre production of “Emerson High” will be performed on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm; November 5–15 at Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center, 9 Vassar Street, Poughkeepsie. (888) 718-4253; www.halfmoontheatre.org.