Grisling Hall deals with grief through drama – The Oberlin Review

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Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of death, grief, and sexual assault.

Gray room is an original play written by College fourth-year Jordan Muschler, which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. at Wilder Main. Gray room follows two siblings, Sophie and Will, as they come through the death of their father. Their complicated grieving process becomes a exploration of memory and legacy as they come to terms with the fact that they may not have known their father as well as they thought. The piece, at its core, is a discussion of power dynamics between faculty and students, as well as a broader exploration of institutional memory and who is worth remembering. Gray room draws attention to the fact that many buildings on college campuses are named after people deemed important enough to be honored but whose legacies are often complex.

“I got the idea originally…when I did the first college tour because I was looking around at the iconography that often has people’s names on it,” Muschler said. “I wondered who are they? And then what did they do? Did they do something horrible? I wanted to write about how we react to horrible things. I’ve known people who have done really awful things and who are my friends, who were family, and I was interested in how we expect to have a good experience with someone personally but knowing that they did something horrible.

In Gray room, Sophie and Will struggle to determine whether or not their father should be remembered by people other than themselves. During the play, Sophie and Will represent the myriad ways grief can manifest itself not only in oneself but also in relation to others. Audiences are forced to think about how grief can pull people who care about each other apart, especially when that grief is unexpected. The death of their father was anticipated, but the death of their ability to idolize their father was not.

“Different parts of me are in each character,” Muschler said. “The character who most resembles me is Sophie; the way she deals with grief is most similar to the way I deal with grief. She’s much more internal about it. Dad’s character was the weirdest to write. You have to connect with him even if he’s a person who’s obviously done horrible things, because otherwise he’s just a one-dimensional foil. Theater is the best way to connect with characters that are right before your eyes.

Middle school fourth-year Maggie Elsen, who directs the play, agrees that theater allows its audience to connect with a story in a way that other media cannot.

“Live theater is particularly relationship-driven because you’re physically in the space with the characters as they navigate the situation,” Elsen said. “In this way, live theater has a very powerful ability to convince people to think deeply and nuancedly as they experience it with the characters.”

Gray room only has three characters, which reduces the family dynamic. As an audience member, you sympathize with some characters but hate others. In a way, you go through the conflicting emotions that the siblings feel with them. The actions of the characters frustrate you, and yet you can’t help but want them to be better and act better. You connect with the siblings through their relationship and feel most attached to them, even though the father character is the only one who speaks directly to the audience. The audience is seated, it seems, in the middle of the family living room – almost included in the unit. Thrown into the conflict, the audience must come to their own conclusion about the events unfolding alongside the siblings.

The words sexual violence or assault are not uttered outright, but it is understood that this is what the play is about. The audience hears the words “power dynamics” and “creep,” but also sees how Sophie interacts with the two men in her family. Sophie is the only female character present, and the only other women mentioned are those who have suffered harm. Her frustration with her brother and father is grounded in an understanding of the sexual harm that comes from being a woman they will never understand.

Humanizing someone who has hurt may seem counterproductive, but in reality, those who hurt are not far from us. By acknowledging that you can care about someone and also acknowledging that they have done wrong and holding them accountable, the play addresses how two seemingly opposite things can co-exist. Just because you know one version of someone and think you know them well doesn’t mean you know all the versions.

“I think Oberlin students are afraid to recognize nuances,” Elsen said. “This show is about accepting that two things can be true at the same time.”

The Grisling family invites its audience to recognize that people who do bad things don’t always look like monsters. The more we realize that those who cause harm can be our friends, family, and those around us, the easier it will be to hold those people accountable and support those who have been hurt.

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