Onstage NTX review of ON THE EXHALE

This review contains spoilers

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Onstage NTX, Jill Sweeney

Content Warning // gun violence; death

This play (and naturally this review) is centered around guns, and the inciting incident for the action is an elementary school shooting. Shooting deaths are discussed frankly, though not graphically, and may be disturbing to some audience members/readers.

“I’ve long been fascinated with the act of firing a weapon and how it is a very aggressive act, but how, to do it well, you need to be incredibly calm, centered, focused. It can be a meditative experience if you do it very well — I’ve long been fascinated by that paradox.”—Martín Zimmerman

It zags, this script, when you’re sure it’s going to zig.

Though “pleasure” is the wrong word for the experience of watching Martín Zimmerman’s wrenching one-woman play On The Exhale, it’s hard not to admire the craftsmanship even as the swamping grief of the story’s protagonist threatens to pull her, and us, under. Stage West Artistic Director Dana Schultes, under the tight, thoughtful direction of TCU’s Harry B. Parker, paints a stark portrait of a grief too raw and profound to be completely shared with anyone, and of a logical woman unmade. The unconventional means through which her character (never named) processes that grief keeps the audience guessing until the lights go down.

Zimmerman’s play is almost a parable, an attempt at a play about guns that takes neither a pro- nor an anti-gun stance. (Your mileage may vary as to whether this balance is achieved.) The bereaved Woman at the center of the piece becomes fixated on the particulars of her son’s death, spiraling into obsession until she finds herself walking in the shooter’s footsteps, buying the same gun he used from the same store (a three-minute process requiring only her driver’s license, with some complementary bullets included, natch).

A Women’s Studies professor and dyed-in-the-wool liberal, this Woman is the last person you’d envision buying an assault rifle. But that’s the point, really: even someone with every reason in the world to hate guns “can’t be trusted to control herself around machines of such seductive power.” And possession of this gun, in an unexpected turn, becomes less and less about the power of the weapon, but the connection it provides to her son. The play’s choice to de-masculinize gun use is only one, but one of the most fascinating, of its zags.

Schultes keeps a tight lid on her character’s emotions, visibly pulling away when the grief threatens to spill out and presenting her story with a detached, professorial tone. She’s dryly funny, and self-deprecating as a defense mechanism—as in a moment with the Woman’s therapist early in the production, as she describes her persistent fear of being shot by a student: “You pretend to laugh it off, try to make it seem like you have a sense of humor about the whole thing.” There’s a certain horrified relief in the play’s climax when Schultes finally lets go, snarling and weeping with rage, dropping the logical mask to reveal how close to the edge she really is. Schultes’ performance is a master class in restraint, moving the character and the audience so incrementally and methodically towards madness that the character’s unhinged state only becomes clear in hindsight.

Set designer Allen Dean has created a subtly fascinating space for Schultes’ character to inhabit—blank, but intriguingly curved, at once open and confined. The set (in Stage West’s studio space) is framed by high tension wires, connecting with points on the stage and ceiling seemingly at random, suggestive perhaps of multiple sightlines, or perhaps nerves, as they quivered visibly when Schultes moved around the stage. As with the best designs, the lighting and sound in the piece (from Bryan Stevenson and Ryan Simon, respectively) could go almost unnoticed, but subtly worked to heighten the tension scene by scene.

This piece is being played simultaneously and “in conversation” with Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State on the company’s main stage (reviewed on our site by Jan Farrington). Although I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing that piece, I get the sense that the connective tissue between the two plays is a centering on people, not politics, in the discussion around guns and gun control. Intriguingly, nearby Amphibian Stage produced the world premiere of Melissa Crespo and Sarah Saltwick’s Egress earlier this season, another play centered on an unnamed female professor and the push-pull of her revulsion and attraction towards guns after experiencing an act of violence.

Something in the air, perhaps?

Whatever side of the fence you occupy, there’s something here for you. Stage West’s production is powerful and primal, and should keep you breathless until its last moments. We overuse the words “can’t miss” these days, and the art they’re describing rarely lives up to the hype. Trust me: this is one you really, REALLY don’t want to miss.