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Theatre in Review: 17 Minutes (The Barrow Group)

Caption: Larry Mitchell, Shannon Peterson. Photo: Joey Moro.

The period of time referenced in the title of Scott Organ's play represents a brief cul-de-sac in the life of Andy, a sheriff's deputy -- which is, nevertheless, enough to derail his life. The action tracks the aftermath of a horrific incident -- one which has become all too familiar to Americans. It begins with Andy, who was on-site during the crime, undergoing an apparently routine debriefing by a detective assigned to the case; however, the questions soon acquire an unsettlingly probing nature. Still, it will take Andy some time before he discovers that he is headed for a tailspin from which he may never recover.

Andy, who worked as a guard at a high school, was standing at his usual post -- the doors on the building's south side -- when he heard what sounded like an assault rifle. Following procedure, he promptly alerted headquarters and, allegedly, began searching for the source of the gunshots. But when the SWAT team arrived on the scene, seventeen minutes later, Andy had yet to move an inch. By then, the armed young man roaming the hallways had been subdued by Mary, Andy's partner -- but more than a dozen students were dead.

How to explain Andy's inaction? He floats several possibilities, none of them satisfactory. First, he assumes that the timeline is incorrect, an assertion easily disproved. Then he says that his attention was focused on the school's roof, certain that that the shooter was up there -- a theory that makes no sense. (Andy says he was worried about a Las Vegas-style shooter picking off his victims from on high, but all the students were inside, for the first class of the day.) Faced with the detective's deadpan skepticism, Andy bristles at the suggestion that he might have been scared; he is, after all, an Iraq War veteran. Indeed, he insists, he was doing exactly what he was trained to do.

Andy is possessed of an almost preternatural calm, one which will be sorely tested as he becomes an object of scorn and fury in his community. His wife, Samantha, quietly urges him to resign before he is fired and loses most of his pension -- a strategy that would allow them to realize their dream of relocating to Tucson - but he insists that he will soon be back on the job. Mary details to Andy her harrowing experience of that day, making him feel impossibly ineffectual. Other encounters prove even more corrosive. Soon, feeling isolated, his career in tatters, his marriage in trouble, he takes up old destructive habits, and there may be worse to come.

Structured as a series of quiet-yet-tense dialogues, 17 Minutes is a taut account of one man's descent into pariah status and a hell of self-loathing. The play would appear to be inspired by the case of Scot Peterson, who faced charges for not taking action to stop the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida -- although Andy is never prosecuted; as the script reveals, being branded a coward in one's community is punishment enough. Ever present, however is the question of what one can reasonably expect from the police in such a volatile situation. Andy might have failed to do his job, but can anyone say for certain that he or she would have done better?

If individual scenes prove gripping, however, the overall design of 17 Minutes is dramatically unsatisfactory. The confrontations don't reveal enough of Andy's character; he remains a bit of a blank throughout and one becomes increasingly frustrated with his seeming cluelessness. The circumstances of the incidents remain opaque -- we learn practically nothing about the killer -- and far too much of the action happens offstage. The play circles endlessly around the question of Andy's motives, driving him toward a moment of catharsis that, ultimately, seems trivial given the horrors associated with that day. There's an ugly, powerful truth buried inside the script about the human need to find scapegoats when tragedy strikes but, as constructed, the play can't fully address it.

Still, under Seth Barrish's tightly controlled direction, the cast is uniformly strong, beginning with Larry Mitchell as Andy, whose state of denial crumbles, by degrees, from scene to scene. Brian Rojas excels as the detective, whose professional manner only barely hides his contempt. DeAnna Lenhart sketches Samantha's rising dissatisfaction with understated skill. Shannon Patterson makes a great deal out of Mary's agonized account of going face-to-face with an adolescent killer. Michael Giese brings real menace to his single appearance as the perpetrator's father, who savages Andy for not taking down his son. Best of all is Lee Brock as the mother of a murdered student, whose chance encounter with Andy turns into a life-or-death situation; the byplay between her and Mitchell has a second-by-second volatility that is missing elsewhere.

Also helpful is a no-frills, yet highly effective, production design. Edward T. Morris' set, which places the audience on two sides of a narrow playing area, provides a much-needed sense of intimacy; it only requires the quick shifting around of a few pieces of furniture to create several locations. Solomon Weisbard's lighting ranges from a clinical police-station look to a murky, saturated bar interior to a stark sunlight wash. Emma Wilk's sound design combines a handful of key effects with solid reinforcement for Barrish's incidental music, with its tense undertone of jazz drums. The costume designer, Matsy Stinson, had her work cut out for her, as the script is largely silent regarding the location of the play and the social strata of the characters; nevertheless, her work feels thoroughly plausible.

Organ and company have taken on tough -- maybe impossible -- assignment in 17 Minutes, and, to their credit, everyone involved never exploits its central situation for easy tears. But such reticence, however admirable, also curbs the play's drama; the strategy of zeroing in on a single detail of such a momentous event somehow feels inadequate to the occasion. "No one is equipped to deal with this sort of thing," Brock's character says. "Not anymore. It's too big." Alas, she may be right. --David Barbour

(22 January 2020)

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