I have completely lost any semblance of counting the plays that I am reading. I read SO MANY PLAYS this semester.
On the Exhale by Martín Zimmerman
Content Notification: Elementary school shooting, self harm
I ordered this play after the shooting in Uvalde, when I was looking for plays that have dealt with shootings. Feeling that sort of powerless thing so many artists feel in the aftermath of yet another horrific and entirely unavoidable tragedy. I'm a person who believes that art can change things. So I wanted to see what other people who believe that have done.
The unnamed protagonist of this one woman play begins by explaining an uncomfortably familiar anxiety in education these days - the fear that any one of us might be next. Specifically she is in higher education, which brings it close to home for me. For this character, however, her 1st grade son and his classmates turn out to be next. A single mother of a now deceased child, she struggles with how to find any tangible connection to her son and what happened - since all the witnesses are also fatal casualties of the attack. She is surprised to discover that she finds connection in an impulse purchase and subsequent firing of the exact same type of automatic rifle that killed her son. The character wrestles with the ugliness of the act and the strange allure of the instrument of death. But when she testifies in front of a bored congress, she finds herself unsatisfied with shooting ranges and teeters dangerously on the edge of another kind of catharsis.
This is an interesting play, and for about the first two thirds, I think it does what it is doing very well. The plot that unfolds once she zeros in on a heartless and disinterested senator near the end feels a bit too contrived for my taste, especially in a play that feels so grounded and truthful until that point. I would be curious to see how this plays out on stage. I'm attracted to its horrifying relevance, but am not convinced that it ends up earning its place. It's hard to say.
One interesting tidbit worth noting is that the playwright specifies that the gun itself should not appear onstage; rather the actor must "use her body to suggest the weapon." Remembering back to the Tony Awards performance by the cast of Hamilton the weekend of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, I remember the power of their absent weapons that night. We all know what a gun looks like. I think the playwright is right that the trauma of staring at an automatic rifle onstage in front of us might just be too much. We can fill in the blanks, and the horror is still all too real.