Black-box theaters are usually just that: dark, drab, no-frills spaces. Off the Wall Productions is a "black box" only by technical definition; colorful and even whimsical, the second-floor theater is inviting and cozy. That upending of expectations also pretty well describes Off the Wall's staging of Diana Son's Stop Kiss.
First produced in 1998, when gay-bashing reached mainstream discussion and headlines (Matthew Shepard was murdered less than two months before Stop Kiss opened in New York's Public Theatre), the play is still, unfortunately, relevant. But it's not sad or preachy or even, by the usual standards, a "gay play." It's a funny, touching story about relationships and the growth of real intimacy, including -- but reaching beyond -- the sexual. The clichés pop up only in retrospect: All the female characters are strong and loving, the males obnoxious to various degrees, and New York thrilling but dangerous.
The evening-length one-act is folded in half, switching between the period leading up to the horrific assault that leaves one of the principal characters in a coma, and the aftermath and reactions to it. They meet when Callie befriends newcomer Sara, who's as enthusiastic and lovable as a puppy. Erika Cuenca is glamorous as Callie, a jaded New Yorker, while Theo Allyn and Karen Baum are double-cast in alternate performances as Sara. As we get to know (and like) them, we soon find that Sara is far more audacious, Callie timorous -- igniting their mutual attraction and their near-tragedy.
Director Robynne Parrish has added a "street musician" (played by Autumn Ayers) to cover scene changes with mixed success, but has a pretty solid cast of Equity and non-union actors. Atom Pribala lustily chews the scenery (delectably designed and built by Paul A. Shaw) as Callie's swashbucklingly dickish occasional boyfriend. More restrained but far more clueless is Sara's ex, portrayed by the excellently named Matt Lamb. Linda Haston plays both a civic-minded citizen and a sympathetic nurse's aide, and F.J. Hartland the hard-hearted detective only desultorily on the case. Applause also to stage manager Debi Meny, light/sound designer Michael E. Moats and costumer Chaleece McCracken.
Tender but not tearjerkily manipulative, Stop Kiss is a warm human romance with several twists and an unexpectedly upbeat outlook.
Stop Kiss continues through Dec. 18. Off the Wall Productions, 147 N. Main St., Washington, Pa. 724-873-3576 or insideoffthewall.com