Everyone ignores or forgets until it happens to them.
Columbine. Red Lake. Nickel Mines. Virginia Tech. Northern Illinois University. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe.
Those are only a few of the school shootings over the last 20 years in this country. There have been hundreds of tragedies in the last 10 years alone, leaving a wake of innocent children, teachers, and staff dead, their only fault attending class on the day someone decided to unleash a barrage of bullets on their campus. These incidents are always followed by memorials and vigils, marches and rallies, empty words from those in power, dissipating into little to no change, despite the fact most Americans want stricter gun control measures.
The amount of mass shootings in this country has desensitized us from the murder and carnage. Which is why a work like On the Exhale, at Rec Room through March 9, is so important. Based on a script by Martín Zimmerman, a TV writer with credits for Netflix thriller, Ozark, and directed by Stephanie Wittels Wachs, the play is a singular perspective on what it means to be one of those left behind to pick up the pieces.
Amy Bruce gives a powerhouse, 60-minute, one-woman performance as a forever-changed mother, trying to make sense of the senseless death of her son in a school shooting. The subject matter is obviously heavy, but it is interspersed with wry and sometime humorous observations about the often-ridiculous nature of sympathy and judgement of those not scathed.
But whereas most of us are used to moving on with the news cycle, On the Exhale tackles the subject of gun violence head-on and puts us as audience members squarely in its aim. Bruce stands on a bare, all-black stage with no adornments other than four lights set up on each corner. The house lights stay on for what feels like an uncomfortably long time, which is by design.
Then, as Bruce tells us her tale as a white, liberal college professor and single mom to Michael, pouring over the intimate details of the worst nightmare of parents everywhere, the house lights start to dim, illuminating the sole performer. We are drawn into her, and we can palpably feel each stage of her grief as she first tackles denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, eventually acceptance, just not in the way we’ve gathered from watching movies and television shows about other traumatic events.
Our protagonist isn’t a victim. She seeks to take control of her feelings the best way she knows, to seek answers as to how and why this turn of events befell her, to understand every little nuance and detail, and how to take action.
When she comes face-to-face with the weapon that killed her son, the script makes a 90 degree turn. We get a sense of what makes gun ownership so seductive, the power to take lives in a matter of seconds, at the mercy of the weapon’s handler.
What happens at this point would be to give away the complete story and best discovered in the Rec Room confines. But Zimmerman’s play is a fiercely unflinching look at the many different angles of a uniquely American epidemic. That makes On the Exhale must-see viewing, whether one is a fierce gun control advocate or one who believes in the right to open carry.
Following the show last Saturday, Rec Room associate director Sophia Watt led audience members in a casual discussion of the play with director Wittels Wachs and star Bruce. Wittels Wachs commented that the play hadn’t been selling as many tickets as they would have liked, semi-joking that “no one wants to see a play about guns,” which is disappointing.
If we don’t start and continue the conversation, how many more perish before positive change happens? On the Exhale is a way to keep the discussion going while experiencing a fantastic performance by its talented star lead.
On the Exhale is at the Rec Room, 100 Jackson St, through March 9.