The word smile doesn’t feel loaded. It evokes the Charlie Chaplin song that tells us life is still worthwhile if you’ll only just lift the corners of your mouth. “Smile” suggests happiness, friendship, satisfaction. What could be bad about that?
Melissa Jane Osborne can take you to the dark side. The smile behind her title is not benign, it’s a one-word command that tries to pass itself off as a compliment: I see you. You’re almost pretty, but you’d be much prettier if you smiled. Do what I say and it will fix you.
Practically every woman alive has likely been told to smile by at least one stranger.
In Smile, a group of boys harasses a classmate, Rachel (Isabella Feliciana) with the word in a crowded high school hall. When she responds negatively, it sets off a string of events that is unpredictable yet comes to feel inevitable. Class, race, gender, the role of school administrators in the lives of students—all come into play.
The school happens to be on Philadelphia’s Main Line, and Rachel happens to be from another part of town. A school counselor, Helen (Andria Kozica) brings Rachel home to work as a babysitter after she is suspended. Helen is at a precarious point in her life, and devotes herself intensely to Rachel, to the growing consternation of her husband Matt (John Lavelle).
Matt is at first grateful that Rachel is caring for his challenging young son, but over time the relationships between the couple and the high school student morph in awkward and dark ways.
This is a complex story, yielding its layers slowly. Understudy Alex Fox played Rachel’s classmate Joey in the performance reviewed; his character perfectly captured adolescent longing and confusion. The interplay between the two makes up a layer that gives a glimpse into Rachel’s future; it will forever be colored by the events in that high school hallway.
Michelle Bossy doesn’t just have the greatest name ever for a director, she directs with care and finesse. The direction, as well as the set design (Yuri Okahana-Benson) and lighting (Dan Weingarten), maintain the air of normalcy increasingly clashing with the unfolding events. Feliciana and Kozica are fearless in the intensity of their veering emotions. The sudden ending is both satisfying and perturbing.
IAMA’s Smile runs through Dec. 5 at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. Show times are Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm (dark Nov. 25), Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here. There’s free parking in the ATX lot south of the theater, and plenty of street parking.