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Theatre in Review: On the Exhale (Roundabout Underground)

Marin Ireland. Photo: Joan Marcus

In On the Exhale, a play about gun violence in America, Marin Ireland takes aim at the audience and fires; she is armed only with Martín Zimmerman's text and her own formidable talent, but it's enough to leave us thoroughly shaken. Playing an unnamed academic, a professor of literature, she enters, looks at us, and says, "You always imagined it happening to you." And although she is smiling, you already have a pretty good idea of what "it" means.

In this case, she is talking about dream encounters with a male student who, upset that she has failed his essay paper and covered it with notes demanding revisions, shows up for a conference, seething with fury, adjusts his shirt, "and there it is. Obediently waiting in its holster. Eying you with its obsidian stare." (Working in a kind of blank verse, Zimmerman has a way with words, simply put together and weaponized for maximum force.) Well, sadly, that's the world we live in, right? Such incidents turn up in the newspaper almost daily. But she has taken such precautions -- a permanently locked office door, even though it is located "down a lonely basement hall," adding a mirror that allows her to see who may be coming -- that even her therapist seems skeptical, her doubt expressed "in the up-glide at the end of each sentence... This is the first time you feel judged by your therapist." (Throughout On the Exhale, Ireland uses the second person when speaking, a strategy that somehow implicates us in the ugly events that follow.)

Ireland's character is also the single mother of a six-year-old boy, fathered by sperm donor. Such a choice, she adds, dryly, "means choosing the subtle scrutiny of everyone around you," as her friends race to fix her up "with any available man, or, failing that, a woman." She refuses to play this game, adding, "It's the worst thing you can do to a well-meaning white liberal/Reward their good intentions with ingratitude./They'd sooner have a murderer in their midst." Those last words acquire a wrenching additional meaning when her department chair arrives with terrible news. As Ireland says, "So when you hear her say, 'There's a shooter at the school'/You think she must mean your school./Not the school./The elementary school."

If what happens next has become familiar, thanks to television news, it still has the power of a lead pipe landing on one's gut. We hear about the line of parents waiting outside the school, desperate to hear what has happened to their children -- and who has survived: "Absent any information/Parents pull out phones/Start streaming CNN/MSNBC/To see what they can tell you/The absurdity of watching reporters on your phone/Who are standing mere feet from you/reporters who know nothing more than you do/Is lost in the upside-down logic of this moment." And when she learns the fate of her little boy, the impact is almost unbearable.

I don't want to describe too much of what happens next, but, in her need to understand the crime that has taken place, she sets forth on two wildly conflicting courses, joining with other parents to push for anti-gun legislation while secretly buying the same type of weapon used by the school shooter and learning how to use it. (Some of Zimmerman's most compelling writing describes how she becomes almost voluptuously attached to her daily sessions at a local shooting range. The sore shoulder she acquires from shooting is a mark of her obsession; she can't stop, even when the bruise begins to bleed.) She even drives a group of parents to a meeting of their state legislature with the gun in the trunk. There, mortally offended by a pro-gun senator who texts his way through the parents' heart-wrenching testimony, she decides to take action.

Ireland, a slim, angular blonde, with big eyes, a forthright manner, and a coiled tension in every inch of her frame, leads us through her character's personal Inferno, bowling us over at first with her energy and knifepoint irony, then slowing down to a hush as the unthinkable starts to happen. Later, when she finds herself acting in ways she barely understands, her voice chokes with a grief she is not ready to accept; during the last third of the play, you will find yourself wondering uneasily just how far her rage can possibly take her.

I won't swear that, without an actress as fiercely committed as Ireland, On the Exhale might not seem rather melodramatic, but Zimmerman has a poet's touch and a penetrating insight into the devastation that can be wrought by such a senseless death. The director, Leigh Silverman, keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, never letting the experience become exploitative, making sure that we accompany Ireland's character on her step-by-step descent into darkness. This sense of discipline extends to Rachel Hauck's spare set design, which is dominated by a brushed metal deck and ceiling and lit with exquisite control, in a palette of whites of varying color temperatures, by Jen Schriever. Emily Rebholz's costume design feels exactly right. Bart Fasbender is the credited sound designer but I confess that I was so in thrall to Ireland's voice, I heard nothing else.

A great many more things could be said about On the Exhale -- about its topicality and the way it avoids being a mere polemic -- but let's just say that it is the most harrowing sixty minutes in New York at the moment, and leave it at that. -- David Barbour

(6 March 2017)

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