Rochester, 1996 – Beauty in a Shattered Illusion

Capital W’s Rochester, 1996 is best described as an immersive coming-of-age story. Philippa, a self-described “PK” (pastor’s kid), invites the audience into her thoughts and memories of a single day in 1996. During a brief but potent introduction to Philippa, we are privy to her inner thoughts, her guilt and disgust at her budding homosexuality amidst her religious upbringing. Vowing to shut off that part of herself, Philippa welcomes us to join in her day, beginning at her family’s church service. Through this service, the audience is introduced to the congregation and given insights into Philippa’s background and influencing ideology. We understand why she might want to hide certain aspects of herself from her parents, Daniel and Emily.

An Illuminating Car Ride

After mass, we follow Philippa through her day in silence; we are but flies on the wall of her memories. In their weekly routine, Daniel and Philippa take Joseph, an over-eager congregation member, to the metro station during their ride home. Once he leaves, Philippa confides in us how she wishes she knew her father better, how snippets of the man find their way to her, to be written down in a diary with only two pages scribbled on. The familiarity and mutual affection between the two are palpable, an easy comfort filling the car ride. But an alert from Daniel’s pager marks the end to the mask he wears around his family. Nadia, a member of the church, is desperate for help after her boyfriend physically assaulted her.

Philippa’s emerging sexuality elates at the opportunity to be around Nadia, but a darker secret is ready to burst forth. While driving Nadia to his family’s home, Daniel subtly brushes her hair with his fingers, getting lost in the intimacy of her. Philippa picks up on this and calls out her father to explain the feelings he and Nadia have for each other. Daniel, torn apart by a pent-up guilt, pulls over, getting out of the van to throw up. We watch from inside the van, unable to hear the pained words between father and daughter, and then father and mistress, and finally daughter and mistress. Holding her chin high, Philippa gestures for Nadia to get back in the van, still aimed for the family’s home. It is a quiet ride; only Philippa’s pointed song choices echo from her tape player as the tension hangs high in the air.

The Painful Aftermath

Finally arriving at home, bringing heartbreaking trouble with us, Philippa tells us to go wherever we want – “Nothing matters anymore.” I stay in the van with Daniel and Nadia, as Philippa heads into the house, unsure of what (if anything) she would tell her mother about what transpired. Nadia, tears streaming down her face, sits quietly as Daniel gently tries to coax her to run away with him. Turning away from his attempted kiss, Nadia flees the van and heads into the house. I follow.

Turning into a sandbox-style experience, audience members are free to roam from room to room, following each of the family members and Nadia, waiting for the broken glass to finally shatter. A heated discussion between husband and wife clues us in that Emily knew more about the situation than she let on. Philippa helps Nadia get cleaned up, while her parents retire to different rooms to contemplate their next move. I turn toward Philippa’s room, where she had just taken Nadia to lay down.

Ani DiFranco and Sarah McLachlan posters line the room. A Joni Mitchell song plays from the turquoise cassette player. A timid Philippa quietly gathers her courage, resolving to tell distraught Nadia, “I will never hurt you.” With that giant leap forward, Philippa beckons us to follow her outside, into the sun, directly contrasting the small, enclosed room in which we initially met her. Opening her arms wide, basking in the warmth, Philippa tells us of her bittersweet future, something to endure and something to look forward to, a smile of hope dancing on her lips.

Reveling in the Nuance

Rochester, 1996 expertly transitioned through different styles of immersive experiences, the audience interacted as characters within the narrative, we watched the story quietly on rails, and we were able to follow the characters and interactions which moved us the most. The story and characters deftly moved the audience through these styles seamlessly, only a few straightforward directions given to us by characters. The details of the piece – from the technology (a pager, the cassettes, the one standing payphone in Los Angeles) to the art found in the family home and the church programs – are painstakingly accurate and time-appropriate, fleshing out the sense of a time past, but not so long ago it’s forgotten. The art design shows how much we’ve advanced as a species, but how human interactions and discrimination remains eerily similar.

The cast of Rochester, 1996 is incredible, providing the audience all-too-human characters to identify with, flaws included. Julia Nejman’s Philippa, the anchor of the piece, is heartbreakingly real, vulnerable and open, eyes wide and naïve, believing only the best in her father. She is so comfortable and natural in the show, and I believed her every word, her every look of disappointment or excitement. Thaddeus Shafer’s Daniel is a commanding yet gentle presence, one whose love for his daughter and subsequent guilt at breaking her perfect illusion of him came alive through just his eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror of the van. Grace Lee (Emily) showed strength in the face of betrayal, Soren Royer-McHugh (as eager church member Joseph) provided some welcome laughs, Dasha Kittredge (Nadia) moved us with her tears, and Lorinda Hawkins Smith (church-goer Meta) brought skilled vocals to her solo during mass.

A Trim Perhaps?

While the church sequence provides subtle insights into the characters and where they stand on various issues, for me it was reminiscent of my high school self being forced to go to mass by my parents or Catholic school. Even with keeping a quick clip during the various parts of the service, I wouldn’t have minded if sections were trimmed or cut entirely (for example: perhaps use two rather than four songs, trim down the community announcements, or cut out the Kudos to individual members of the congregation). The sequence was so well done that I forgot I was watching actors put on a performance and found myself slightly tuning out, something I often did during actual mass (sorry, mom and dad).

Along the same lines as the church scenes, the van ride around town was quite long. The interactions between father and daughter, and later Nadia were absolutely riveting and extraordinarily well-done. However, Los Angeles is a huge city and I found myself drifting during the silences, even when the tension hung thick in the air. Again, I maintain that the piece was so natural, the actors so real and lived-in, and the vibe so comfortable that I was at-ease enough to close my eyes during the long car ride around town.

A Production Worth its Praise

Writer/director Lauren Ludwig and co-producers Monica Miklas and Tad Shafer have created something magical in Rochester, 1996. The highly-personal and extremely moving production excels at bringing an audience into the monumental point in life when a child really sees their parents for who they are. With the illusion of parental perfection broken, one (in this case, Philippa) can come into their own and finally become who they are meant to be. Beautiful, nuanced and relatable, Rochester, 1996 opens minds and hearts alike.

For More Information

Click here for more info on Capital W, and get tickets for Rochester, 1996. Also, check out our reviews for some other great immersive shows around Los Angeles, including They Played ProductionsThe Speakeasy Society and more.

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