University Theatre at N.C. State’s recent encore presentation of Stop Kiss, playwright Diana Son’s deeply moving plea for tolerance for gays and lesbians, was as stirring a drama as local audiences are likely to see in 2003. Deftly directed by Terri L. Janney, this critically acclaimed March 7-17 production of Stop Kiss was repeated Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 in Thompson Studio Theatre to raise funds to defray the expenses of the show’s Feb. 8 performance in Region IV of the American College Theatre Festival, held at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA.

Tracey E. Phillips (Callie) and Collette Rutherford (Sara) were terrific as two ostensibly straight women, virtual strangers to each other, who find themselves attracted to each other in a way that neither of them had previously experienced. This elemental attraction, which results in an impulsive and very public first kiss, subjects the pair to a brutal gay bashing that leaves Sara in a coma and Callie emotionally shattered.

Phillips and Rutherford, who have brightened so many previous University Theatre productions, are absolutely stellar here in portraying two complicated “normal” women — a somewhat cynical New York radio traffic reporter (Callie) and an idealistic and, perhaps, hopelessly naïve inner-city schoolteacher recently arrived from St. Louis (Sara) — who surprisingly find themselves sexually attracted.

Director Terri Janney, who also lights the show with professional skill, superbly guides her young and very, very talented cast through a difficult fast-paced script that parallels before scenes of the women’s burgeoning friendship with after scenes of Callie coping with police investigators, medical personnel attending the comatose Sara, and her own guilt.

Adrian P. Dunston is very good as Callie’s rough-around-the-edges sometimes-boyfriend George, and Will Sanders is likewise outstanding as Sara’s indignant still-possessive former boyfriend Peter. Shane Waring gives a gritty performance as police Detective Cole, whose professional suspicions are aroused by Callie’s vague and deliberately misleading description of the circumstances leading up to the near-fatal assault on Sara.

Kate Isley wonderfully nasty as Mrs. Winsley, the only witness to the gaybashing; and Amber Daughtry smoothly substitutes for Margaret-Ellen Jeffreys in the small but important role of a sympathetic Nurse who rattles Callie by erroneously assuming that she and Sara are long-time lovers.

With its superb student cast and Terri Janney’s inspired staging, Stop Kiss is a strong candidate for this year’s 10-best list. Exceptional efforts by set designer Curt Tomczyk and costume designer Lori Ann Langdon also make Stop Kiss an evening to remember.