Perfect for post-show conversations in Philly

InterAct Theatre Company presents C.A. Johnson’s The Climb

3 minute read
Fayle, in hiking clothes, sits rubbing his foot and smiling at Gardner, who sits on a stump looking annoyed and holding a map
Trevor Fayle and Ciera Gardner in InterAct’s ‘The Climb’. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

Last week at a march, a Filipinx friend and I were approached by a butch white woman inviting us to an all-women’s camping group. They are “looking for more international women,” she said as she stepped away. My friend and I looked at each other, alarmed and discomfited. I was born in the US; my friend grew up here. But we were perceived, othered, and fetishized for being Asian. This encounter resurfaced for me while watching The Climb, now getting its world premiere at InterAct.

The Climb, by Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based playwright C.A. Johnson, critiques the white gaze, white feminism, academia, and art, while exploring the exploitation and commodification of women of color. What does it mean to capture a subject in a photograph? What is the role of consent in art? Is the relationship between the artist and muse exploitative? How do teacher/student power dynamics affect a relationship? Who is allowed to critique and be critiqued in art and academia? How does our art harm those we love, intentionally or not?

On the trail and at the university

The Climb follows the relationship of an interracial lesbian couple: Marge (Sam Rosentrater), who’s white, is a renowned photographer; her wife Tiffany (Ciera Gardner), who’s Black, is Marge’s muse and former student. Tiffany is on a month-long hike to clear her head and figure out what’s next, and through a series of flashbacks, we learn the backstory of their relationship. In the present, Marge worries about her wife and continues teaching photography at a university. Bella (Claris Park), an ambitious student, storms into her office after an unsatisfactory grade, and is offered a chance to unofficially shadow Marge. Meanwhile, on the trail, an obnoxiously friendly white hiker named Ike (Trevor Fayle) barges in on Tiffany, despite her best efforts to deter him.

Effective staging, complex characters

Director Catharine K. Slusar effectively weaves together the play’s complicated themes and dynamics with excellent casting and moments of levity. Set design by Ant Ma and lighting design by Maria Shaplin is gorgeous, with rocks, leaves, and branches simulating the great outdoors. A desk and projector become effective props for the scenes at the university. This production makes good use of the relatively small stage at the Drake’s Proscenium Theatre, with smooth transitions despite the camping scene’s bulky props. Photographs of Tiffany by Paola Nogueras and Brayden Stallman are beautiful touches.

Gardner captures the audience’s heart with their tender, complicated, and tormented portrayal of Tiffany. Despite limited dialogue to explain the character’s emotions, Gardner shares Tiffany’s inner storm with their facial expression and interactions, especially in those with Ike. Rosentrater’s Marge is believable in her bravado and arrogance, with skillful flashes of reflection and vulnerability that make Marge more nuanced. She is sometimes a confusing character, asking for critique but also very defensive. Each actor infuses real care into the marriage they portray.

Park, in a plaid sweater and khaki cargos, stands arguing with Rosentrater, wearing a red blouse and seated at a messy desk.
From left: Claris Park and Sam Rosentrater in InterAct’s ‘The Climb’. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

Park’s Bella, played with intensity, passion, and humor, provides insight and clarity as she critiques Marge’s work and her relationship with Tiffany. According to Bella, many people are scared to critique Marge’s work because of her sexuality, but discourse considering Tiffany’s race is vital—and mostly done by women of color with smaller platforms because power in art and academia remain largely white. Fayle’s Ike is a likeable jester who is not without his own flaws and backstory. Each character is memorable, distinct, and fully fleshed out.

A timely show for Philly

The Climb asks more questions than it answers, but that is the point. There is no clean conclusion or moral, opening the play to interpretation and post-show conversations. With Philly Pride and most recently the Dyke March reckoning with accusations of racism and transphobia, this play is timely for Philly. Johnson has a powerful voice. This show (my favorite of all I’ve seen at InterAct) highlights the company’s strength for new plays that add to our current social and political dialogues.

What, When, Where

The Climb. By C.A. Johnson. Directed by Catharine K. Slusar. $15-$35. Through June 23, 2024 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or


The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms. There will be a Covid safety night on June 14 at 7pm.

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