The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens is an entertaining exploration of the complexities of becoming a limited vortex public figure in the Internet age and the dangers that can go with it.
The play centers around Sybil Stevens (Jennifer Gordon Thomas), a flight attendant who is the lone survivor of a plane crash in Wyoming where all 256 passengers but her have perished. She is rescued by emergency worker Joe (Sean Williams), who is going through personal struggles of her own. Stevens’ nephew and recovering drug addict Derek (Jordan Tierney) assumes caretaker duties, and also becomes her personal publicist. Stevens denies all media requests, but that doesn’t stop wannabe-Oprah Tessa MacKenzie (Yeauxlanda Kay) and her researcher Valerie (Samatha Fairfield Walsh) from attempting to, and ultimately, booking the exclusive interview.
Things predictably go awry on MacKenzie’s show when skeletons are released from the closet in part because of a revealing, impromptu meeting between Valerie and Derek. Instead of attempting to minimize the chaos, Joe unexpectedly joins in on the interview and immediately immortalizes it. Suddenly, Stevens is embroiled in numerous scandals and controversy and is unsure of her next step.
For this play to work, the protagonist has to be endearing to the audience. Otherwise, the endless calamities that intrude on her life will fall on deaf ears.
Fortunately, Thomas’ portrayal of Stevens makes her likable and easy to relate to. She is the aunt in the family that everyone enjoys being around. She drinks beer. She watches baseball. She holds an exciting job and a steady life. She is uninterested in the media storm that is around her. She shirks her fame despite all of the pressures around her because she simply doesn’t care about it, which, in turn, only endears her more to the audience.
The public never gets to know Stevens the way the audience does, thus posing an interesting commentary on the Internet age of being a celebrity. Make one misstep, and adoring fans can quickly turn ambivalent. Have sordid details of your past come out, and suddenly you are saddled with a throng of virulent detractors (some advice for people caught in that position: Never, ever read the comment sections). It doesn’t matter whether a person is truly a good person or not . We (meaning American media consumers at large) make snap judgments in the first five minutes of a person’s 15 minutes of fame. After that critical period of time, it’s very hard to change the dialogue.
But, it is not impossible. What does America love more than a survival story, Valerie postulates after Stevens seeks her counsel? A story of redemption. While Stevens certainly never asked for her fame, we have all had experiences where we were forced to tackle problems that were not of our own choosing. Stevens strategy of just ignoring everything around her was doomed to fail from the start.
Taking control of her own destiny and her own dialogue was the only choice to break the cycle. Stevens does that, partly in the form of accepting her physical disabilities (such as being confined to a wheelchair). The other dynamic part of her character accepts that she is a celebrity, and finally tells her story on her own terms.