In “The Girl Is Chained,” The Scars Aren’t Always External

Is it okay to be silent when you suspect something undeniable? Are you more likely to destroy yourself in the present when you never received closure from your past? Can it be possible for your life to become a living nightmare even when you’ve seemed to “move on?”

These are questions at the core of the production The Girl Is Chained, a new work from third year MFA candidate Genne Murphy at the Yale School Of Drama. Directed by Shadi Ghaheri, the work runs through Wednesday as part of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays, a celebration of new work by graduating playwrights at the Yale School of Drama. More information and tickets are available here.

The performance tells the stories of two women on opposite sides of a sexual assault case: the survivor and the mother of the accused. Jumping back and forth between 1998 and 2018, we meet Deb (Louisa Jacobson), her son Julian (José Espinosa), and his father (JJ McGlone) eating breakfast. As father remains oblivious to what is happening around him, absorbed with the politics of the morning newspaper, he doesn’t notice Julian refusing to eat and meddling with his ankle monitor. 

We soon learn the particulars anyway: his son has been accused of sexually assaulting 15-year-old Adrienne (Doireann Mac Mahon) who is always referred to as the “first girl,” implying that no one can bring themselves to say her name and that there are more victims. We’re not sure of that until the end of the play, and so it hangs there, heavy with the power of suggestion. Genne Murphy’s written world builds from there, taking on not just multigenerational trauma, #metoo, and identity politics, but also the power of multiple narrators for the same story.  

Throughout,  the play is rich with symbolism. In one scene, Deb gets up to fetch Julian some juice. But she can’t go very far: she is pulled back by a chain locked around her ankle. Something from her past is still latched to her, like a chapter of her life hasn’t been closed. Over time, we see it grow into an insurmountable burden, too great to bear, but too important to walk away from. 

Deb continues to live with this weight for a good portion of the production—but she puts up one hell of a fight trying to overcome it. The weight is not just a ball and chain, but whole specters of her past that haunt her, an angel and devil that morph into literal bodies. They hound Deb every minute of every day. As she tries to focus her attention elsewhere—on fixing her makeup, or getting ready for work, or tending to Julian's needs—they insult and shame her for knowing something that no one else does. 

That jump between past and future—the sense that you are bound by the deeds of your younger self—also unfolds in the language of the play. In nearly every scene, each actor has something to say about “tomorrow,” that ominous, impending thing on the horizon. In one climactic moment, “tomorrow” marks the day of the trial, a moment punctuated with question marks and allegations that hold enormous weight. 

But the trial doesn’t really happen. Not necessarily. Instead, the moment probes bigger themes: the fictions that we spin to protect those we love, the role of collective memory, the trouble in navigating identity and then navigating it all over again. 

For all of it, you are right there with the actors. José Espinosa plays Julian with precision, his rage coming through each motion, every slur that slips liberally from his tongue.

JJ. McGlone, (Julian’s father) is stiff and bland in character, shrugging warmth for an obsession with the morning paper that borders on hilarity. He has slipped into the role of stoic and disinterested, known by the play’s end for the line “It’ll be just fine.” As Deb, Louisa Jacobson becomes the glue of this near-falling-apart family, trying to push doubt from her mind while wrestling with its consequences. 

There is sliver-wide room for improvement: the show quickly changes gears so quickly that it’s almost unnoticeable that the timeline is changing, unless a character gives a verbal cue. The gap of 20 years seems to jump back and forth too fast, leaving the audience unaware of the change. 

But it hits home: on the Thursday it premiered, it left audience members speechless and in tears. The audience stood for an ovation that was well-deserved. And none in the theater were too weighed down to stand.