By Leia Squillace
Obligatory interactions with backward‑walking college campus tour guides can be awkward. But they reach new levels of discomfort on tours of buildings dedicated to convicted sex offenders.
Such is the stew one steps into in “The Honorable Herbert Peabody.” Joe, an anxious and apologetic tour guide, sets out on an impossible task. He leads the audience through his pre‑approved script, dodging the inevitable questions, such as “How could you?” and “What gives you the right?” and sorting out his own involvement in the events as Herbert Peabody’s onetime protégé. Though Peabody’s crimes are not explicitly revealed until late in the play, the sole scenic element, a sign stating “Please Pardon our Appearance,” provides a clue that all is not well in the Herbert Peabody Library and Legacy Center.
In an attempt to justify the construction of this monument to a perpetrator of abuse, Joe walks us through Peabody’s contributions to the university. He was a football star, a beloved professor, and even a senatorial candidate. This extensive biography is occasionally interrupted by voiceovers making generic announcements. The voice belongs to the frequently referenced Emma, who, as we learn, is one of the ten women who accused Peabody of assault, and who are otherwise unheard from in the play.
This fact mars the otherwise captivating production. Kirk McGee’s portrayal of Joe delicately balances tension‑relieving quirkiness with a suspenseful recounting of his own memories of Peabody. Cleanly and unapologetically directed by Corey Atkins, the play clips at a confident pace that promises twists and reveals, but carefully obfuscates them long enough to create genuine suspense. But regardless of how gripping Mr. McGee’s performance is, and it is ‑ the audience verbally responded to him as if on an actual tour ‑ it cannot hold attentions that demand to know what exactly happened to the women victimized by Peabody.
While Emma’s voice haunts the halls, we witness Joe’s breakdown as he struggles to comprehend that his former idol’s crimes will forever undermine his legacy. As co‑teaching assistants to Peabody, Joe and Emma developed a sibling‑like relationship. “I always felt history was in the past,” he says. “She always felt it was being made as we speak.” Ultimately, Joe’s denial of his complicity leaves him crumpled, sweaty, and panicked when he finally acknowledges the harm that occurred under his watch.
The play would seemingly like to emphasize that “History is to be preserved so that others can learn from it.” This sentiment, written as well as spoken by Mr. McGee, leaves the mouth dry as it chews on such a big question. At a moment when society grapples with how to handle the legacies of perpetrators of sexual violence, listening to history may feel revelatory to those on the sidelines, but for the Emmas in the story, this feels as obtuse as a legacy center dedicated to a predator.
“The Honorable Herbert Peabody”
Written and Performed by Kirk McGee
Directed by Corey Atkins
November 16 at 6:00 PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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LEIA SQUILLACE is a director, devised theatre artist, and arts engagement administrator. Leia has developed new plays such as “GOOD KIDS” (Naomi Iizuka), “THE TRAIN” (Irene L. Pynn), and the Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award winner, “FAIR” (Karly Thomas). Most recently, Leia co‑developed a one‑woman show, “I KILLED THE COW,” which is currently touring nationally.