Curious Theatre’s provocative play, “on the exhale,” takes on guns
It would be too flippant to say playwright Martín Zimmerman’s drama, “On the Exhale,” begins with a bang. Although, its ensuing tragedy does — a series of bangs, in fact.
But Curious Theatre Company’s provocative production about one woman’s encounter– first tragic and then illicit — with guns begins with a breath. The play’s scripted, interstitial breaths — its pauses — begin with an embodied intake of air and end with an amplified exhale and the tingle of chimes as if the character were meditating in a temple of deeply American doom.
In a singular performance, Dee Covington plays the show’s sole character. Although the unnamed university professor holds forth for 75 minutes, Zimmerman hasn’t written her a traditional monologue. At times, “On the Exhale,” sounds like a spoken-word poem, rife with urgent verse. But with a twist: Our guide eschews the first-person narration. Instead, she leans into the abysmal darkness of her journey using the second person.
“You always imagined it happening to you,” are the opening words of the play.
Clad in a structured baby blue cardigan, crisp white shirt, dark slacks and stylish flats (costumes by Markas Henry), she shares a recurring dream about being shot by one of her male students. She teaches women’s studies, and there is usually one student each year who makes her fear for her safety. That concealed carry is now the law of the land exacerbates her sense of vulnerability.
Her dream and the daytime cautionary measures she takes give way to a nightmare when the dean of her college tells her there’s been a shooting, not at her college but at the elementary school where her son, Michael, is a second-grader.
We know that Michael is the center of her universe. Sure, other parents may say the same of their children, but it’s just this mom and her boy — and her reliance on him. (It’s a bond she’ll rediscover on a shooting range.) She doesn’t want to die because — as she says in a declaration that begins to pull back the curtain on just how isolated this character feels even before things fall apart — “there will be no one to take care of Michael.”
She won’t die, but she will lose her life in a school shooting. And what follows is a plunge into a psychological state that exists prior to actual grief. Covington makes her character’s post-tragedy emotional sleepwalking believable. But the direction that the character’s somnambulism takes feels less and less true as the terse, one-act play progresses.
In an impossible attempt to know what happened in that classroom on that fateful day, she’ll make decisions that find her turning away from other mourning parents and toward the companionship of the very object that lead to her heartbreak: an automatic rifle that she’ll eventually call her “companion.”
Covington embraces what may seem like the temporary madness of her character so well that theatergoers may be sold on her decisions. I wasn’t, however, and her journey toward gun ownership, obsessive visits to the firing range and finally revenge struck an interesting if utterly manufactured note. And that left me focusing on the playwright’s choices, particularly his use of the second-person narrative.
What to make of the insistent “you” of the play? Especially since our protagonist often speaks directly to the audience? Reading the play, it was striking how much more the “you” felt accusatory, mildly bullying, and less the character’s voice and more the playwright’s. Granted, people who experience trauma may well recount the saga of their tragedies (and its lessons) in that distancing, push-me-pull-you pronoun.
The soliloquy sounds by turn like an invitation for empathy and a rebuff of it — which is a tango that might have proven more compelling were we, as a nation, not so intimately acquainted with school shootings. (Since 2017– the date on the script that Curious worked with for this production — there have been 35 school shootings in which 82 people were killed and 116 people were injured, according to NBC News’ School Shooting Tracker.) And, moreover, it would have worked better if the final gestures of the play, upon the briefest inspection, didn’t unravel.
And yet, this production rises above the play’s problems. Everything about the deceptively barebones show – directed by Chip Walton — amplifies and honors Covington’s performance and the play’s language. The stage at Curious’ Acoma Street home has been extended and chairs set up to create in-the-round seating, a first for the company.
On stage, there is a small bench and a stool. The show has the intimacy of a black-box production. Pay heed to the lighting design (Shannon McKinney) and projection work (Brian Freeland, who is also responsible for sound) to reckon with just how textured “On the Exhale” is.
Last May, Covington and Walton, who founded the theater company more than two decades ago, announced both their departure and their successor, artistic director Jada Suzanne Dixon. “On the Exhale” is the final play of a season that the couple programmed (with input from Dixon) under the banner of “what it means to an American.” And while the play misfires, the production’s contention that guns have become impossibly intertwined with our identity is dead on.
IF YOU GO
“On the Exhale”: Written by Martín Zimmerman. Directed by Chip Walton. Featuring Dee Covington. At the Curious Theatre Company, 1180 Acoma. Through June 10. curioustheatre.org or 303-623-0524.
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