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The Daily Tar Heel

Review: World premiere play gives accurate glimpse into the queer love story

Just Like Now
Marcella Pansini and Jared Bowen play Lissa and Brody in UNC junior Gage Tarlton's play, "Just Like Now." Photo by Olivia Herrera.

The play ended the same way it began – two best friends maneuvering onstage, dancing in a way that can only be described as goofy, childlike innocence.

But Kenan Theatre Company’s “Just Like Now,” which opens Friday, packs a surprising punch that brings young, queer representation onstage in a contemporary story for contemporary audiences.

In “Just Like Now,” best friends Brody and Lissa seem to be the average college best friends. Their bedrooms are riddled with Skittles and gummy worms, and their cellphone ringtones – Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and the Kim Possible theme song – provide immediate context. Brody seems to be addicted to Grindr as a substitute for human connection, while Lissa has her own romantic interest, Beth, frequently spending the night.

When Brody finally finds Thomas on Grindr, it is the beginning of a whirlwind relationship. Thomas works for Cosmopolitan, and Brody notes that he seems mysterious. Regardless, they begin spending nearly every day together.

The narrative continues as the audience witnesses Brody falling in love, Thomas revealing who he really is, Lissa desperately grasping for something that is not there and Beth’s mysterious actions through a series of scenes that melt into each other fluidly.

That fluidity is a marriage of playwright Gage Tarlton’s authentic writing and Ruthie Allen’s effective, relatable directing. The entire production was one of specificity for a youthful generation, and Tarlton made no effort to hide his age with references that any college-aged audience member would understand.

Allen’s representation of mental illness and depression throughout the piece was subtly genius. She used Jaya Mamas’ highly realistic scenic design to emphasize Lissa’s deteriorating mental health – her room becomes increasingly messy and she does not change costumes for scenes at a time. In keeping Brody and Lissa onstage throughout nearly the entire show, Allen immersed the audience in the nuances of the characters’ lives to create a genuine connection.

That genuine connection was the thread that propelled the entire production. Brody, played by Jared Bowen-Kauth, was an adorably goofy fan of romantic comedies who developed surprising depth. After realizing a truth about Thomas, Brody lies completely still on his bed, breathing deeply. Bowen-Kauth’s eyes welled with tears, and he brilliantly allowed the audience to empathize.

Marcella Pansini portrayed Lissa so genuinely that it felt like watching a live-feed of an actual college student alone in her room, particularly in the moments when her character was not the focus.

Thomas, played by DTH columnist Kent McDonald, and Beth, played by Kayla Brown, allowed their respective characters the emotional depth necessary to propel the narrative. Brown was not onstage for a majority of the show, but her presence was unmistakably powerful when she appeared. McDonald made Thomas a loving and nuanced man who captured attention every time he spoke.

“Just Like Now” represents queer characters onstage in a way that is unprecedented and sure to resonate with modern audiences. At its core, it shows a contemporary world in which love, both romantic and platonic, is one of the highest powers.

Kenan Theatre Company’s “Just Like Now” undoubtedly hit the mark in showing how to navigate messy and unfiltered reality through the power of relationships.

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