“I’m a person.” This line is said by all three female characters in Escape, a new play that just completed its run at the 2018 New York International Fringe Festival. The context is different each time, but each woman has the same plea and the same demand: to have her humanity respected and taken seriously. It’s a request that neither male character has to make, because their humanity is accepted as a given and their mistakes and flaws are held under less scrutiny. In this respect, the world of Escape is much like the real world, but the male characters here take a backseat to the three women of the story, flipping the script and centering the people who usually exist on the margins.
Escape takes place in the aftermath of an emergency plane landing after a flight attendant, Lucy Marks (Marlowe Holden), restrains a man causing a disruption and endangering the other passengers. Controversy immediately follows, the public torn on whether Lucy was a hero who saved more than one hundred people, or a villain who abused her power and used excessive force. Hoping to avoid a scandal, the CEO of Global Airlines, Renee York (Rhonda Ayers), offers Lucy a contract and large sum of money to keep her quiet and sweep the story under the rug. But Lucy has other ideas, and she and her roommate and fellow flight attendant Dina (Deya Danielle Drake, also the playwright) decide to take ownership of her story and into their own hands.
Lucy’s goal of self-promotion and controlling her narrative clashes with Renee’s goal of self-preservation. Both women have carefully crafted images of themselves to survive in the world, but Lucy plays up her conventional attractiveness and femininity to use to her advantage, while Renee downplays her womanhood to fit in with her male colleagues and be “one of the guys.” They both know, however, that the game is rigged against them no matter what stereotype they try to reclaim in their favor. Dina, meanwhile, is the sidekick in her friendship with Lucy, a role she seems to embrace and resent in equal measure, viewing her friend with a mix of hero worship, jealousy, and fear.
It’s understandable why these characters are tempted to stay in the roles they’ve created for themselves; the punishment for stepping out of line is severe. Chuck (Jim Thalman), the board liaison for Global Airlines who probably has several #MeToo stories about him waiting to be exposed, treats Lucy like a sex object and turns on her when she has a mind of her own, dismisses Dina as the less attractive friend, and undermines Renee’s authority whenever he has the opportunity. Jack (Chris Wight), the attorney of Global Airlines, is the “nice” guy who’s not really that nice, and only seems decent in comparison to Chuck. The court of public opinion is fickle and no less forgiving, changing their opinion of Lucy’s actions based on her and Dina’s social media videos (projected on a screen on the back of the stage) and rumors about the identity of the passenger.
The tension in the play rises gradually and uneasily thanks to director Lynnsey Ooten’s sharp sense of pacing and the quick, smart cues from the lighting and sound designers (Jennifer Folk and Jessica Hart, respectively). The entire cast is strong, with Deya Danielle Drake pulling an impressive double duty of actor and playwright, but the highlight is Marlowe Holden as Lucy, in a gripping portrayal of a woman who seems like she could completely unravel or defiantly persevere at any moment.
The play is never clear on how we’re supposed to feel about Lucy’s actions towards the passenger on her flight. At first, this ambiguity is an asset to the story; from Lucy’s own account, we’re left thinking that she took the right course of action but went too far in trying to correct the situation. An important revelation near the end of the play leaves a different impression, an uncomfortable feeling that we’re meant to believe that the ends justify the means. Despite that, the final scene is intriguing, suggesting promising futures for these women. Unlike the Global Airlines flight, Escape hit the landing.