After Ashley Examines Sex and Violence in Media

Abby Hawkins, Staff Writer

Gina Gionfriddo’s After Ashley, directed by College senior Jenny Gaeng, opens with a conversation between Ashley Hammond, brought vivaciously to life by College sophomore Lizzie Parmenter, and her 14-year-old son Justin, portrayed by College junior Andy Sold, in their living room as they idly watch reality TV. Immediately after the opening scene, a homeless man — who Ashley’s husband Alden (College first-year Nick Elitzik) hired to do yard work — rapes and murders Ashley in her basement, a shocking turn of events that sets the stage for Gionfriddo’s sharp-eyed, satirical exploration of sex, violence and misogyny in the mainstream media.

Staged in Little Theater last weekend, After Ashley asks an intriguing question that is often ignored by most media satires: In a culture where the blood-spattered brutality of smash-hit TV shows like Law and Order: SVU is not only commonplace but celebrated, what does the popularity of these shows mean for real-life victims of violence? In the case of After Ashley, which traces how the titular character is martyrized and exploited by the media after her violent death, the success of these television shows reflect a growing and disturbing trend in America, where sex crimes are fetishized, romanticized and normalized.

What Ashley succeeds in bringing to light, however, is Alden’s rampant exploitation of Ashley’s life through the publication of his book, which depicts his dead wife as a martyr rather than the spunky, complex woman who confesses to her son, in the play’s opening scene, that she smoked pot when he was a baby. Although Alden’s inauthentic portrayal of his wife earns him his own talk show, his exploitation of his dead wife’s memory alienates him from Justin, whose memory of Ashley diverges sharply from her image as a saint whose flame was extinguished before her time.

Alternately set in a bar, living room and talk-show set, Gaeng mounted her production on a sparse yet versatile stage that required few prop changes to transform into other spaces. Her use of multimedia technology submerged viewers in the glaring media frenzy that Justin experiences following his mother’s death, with live video recordings of Alden’s talk show mimicking the melodramatic zooms and close-ups often seen on shows like Springer and Maury.

The show’s sound design also contributed to the hyper-reality of the media circus that engulfs the family after Ashley’s death. A sound bite from a 911 call made by Justin after his mother’s murder, for instance, is adapted into a rap song about sexual violence that plays during set changes, an example of “misogynistic gangster rap” that further establishes the show’s cultural context.

The production’s use of multimedia visual effects also distinguished it from other recent Oberlin productions by brilliantly trapping the audience in the very phenomenon Ashley revolves around: Projecting the talk show and bits of Alden’s program onto a giant screen transformed viewers into voyeurs of a sensationalized, albeit fictional, tragedy, placing us in exactly the spectator seats that Justin loathes –– and that we do not want to admit we enjoy occupying. In this sense, Gionfriddo shamelessly turns her message on her audience, a demonstration of meta-theater that Gaeng took to the next level with a misogynistic, gangster rap soundtrack, faux-televised action and ’80s TV advertisements, which played before the show and during intermission.

Although the subject matter of After Ashley is clearly dark, the actors made the witticisms interspersed throughout the script sparkle, imbuing the production with a gorgeous humanity. Following his mother’s death, Justin — whom Sold imbues with emotional vulnerability and hard-tongued chauvinism — descends into a drug-and-alcohol addled depression; however, his new girlfriend Julie (played effervescently by College sophomore Sarah Bernstein) brings the play out of despair, providing much of the text’s humor. After approaching what she refers to as the “911 kid” at a bar, Julie develops genuine feelings for Justin, but must simultaneously contend with her own wide-eyed hunger for tragedy, making her the unwitting product of a culture that turns victims of crimes into celebrities.

One leaves After Ashley not knowing quite what to feel, not knowing which characters we are meant to love and which we are meant to loathe. The work uses emotional ambiguity to further the lifelike drama among characters, but the ambivalence it generates makes the show a challenge to watch –– every character has his or her own negative traits and questionable motives, but carries a great deal of pain as well. Even David Gavin (played by College junior Jake Myers), the heartless exploiter of sex-crime victims, lost his daughter to an incident like Ashley’s, but he chose to charge ahead of his emotions by publishing a memoir on the topic. Perhaps he does think the best way to help others who share his experience is to reach out to them through TV. These characters are normal in that they are fully engaged with the influx of media forces shaping their lives. These forces are visible in every rumination and innocuous exchange, and even the most manipulative of acts is fueled by someone’s deeply reverberating sense of loss.