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On the Exhale

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 19, 2017

Marin Ireland
Photo by Joan Marcus

Enemies are not hard to come by, if only you know where to look. In his new gun-violence play On the Exhale, which just premiered at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in a Roundabout Underground production, Martín Zimmerman identifies them everywhere. In the shooters that terrorize a law-abiding populace by committing unimaginable tragedies at elementary schools, of course. But also in stickers announcing gun-free zones, a Supreme Court that preserves concealed carry, the NRA, elected officials who take money from it in exchange for preserving Second Amendment rights, and so on. In an armed culture, Zimmerman's play suggests, we're all at war with each other.

On the Exhale, which filters all of these issues through the psyche of an unnamed mother (played by Marin Ireland) who loses her first-grade son to a school shooting, is at its most convincing and affecting, however, when it considers the greatest enemy of all: fear. After all, you needn't look too hard on the news or on the Internet to find a dazzling array of gun arguments, pro and con. So merely rehashing them, or rather one side of them (from the perspective of this woman, a lesbian women's studies professor, pro-gun-rights positions are not to be taken seriously), is fundamentally pointless. Focusing on the theatre's ability to dig beneath the rhetoric and show us the soul that inspires it is, unsurprisingly, far more effective.

So rather than dwell on plot, Zimmerman ushers us into the mind of this inside-outsider, who sees in every frustrated male student a potential Dylan Roof (she nicknames a particularly unsettling one "The Catalyst") but is clear-eyed enough to know that there's always something to be done. That's why, when her son Michael becomes a victim, she's determined not to be one, too. But in her attempts at protest, she visits the store where the killer purchased the unnamed weapon (it's described only as an "assault rifle") that slaughtered Michael, and finds herself allured by its power, simplicity, and her natural facility with wielding it. So much so, in fact, that she purchases it and begins practicing regularly at the local shooting range.

The exploration of how one kind of zealot flirts with becoming another (or at least spiritually sympathetic) is fascinating both for the combination of its speed and its smoothness, and the way it highlights the fragility of emotions that catapult us beyond our normal comfort zones. Ireland is superb in these moments; she's a fastidiously intelligent actress, and that intelligence, so right for this professor, stands in captivating contrast to the visceral warmth that emerges when she takes life and death quite literally into her own hands. The battle between innate inclinations toward passivity and acquired developments that encourage us to act is waged in her every breath, her every glance (she surveys the gun, and the target she pierces using it, with a gaze approaching religious adoration), and the softening and catching of her usually sharp and precise voice. No matter how secure we are in our beliefs, there's some way we can get lost in anything.

This fusion of acting, direction (by Leigh Silverman), and writing is On the Exhale at its best, because it levels out a piece that is otherwise rocky. The preachiness, even pretentiousness, of the professor is not an easy foundation on which to build a sympathetic story, and it leaves her too stalwart a symbol until she must face down her own prejudices. Zimmerman's choice to structure the entire one-hour play in the second person adds further distance, as we're forced to become less concerned about what did happen to her than what could happen to us. (Making the specific universal seems to be intent; it's only intermittently successful.) And though Silverman has helped Ireland craft a wrenching personality, her staging is at once static and restless: This tiny theater amplifies every motion, so Ireland's constant pacing on the all-black lecture-hall set (by Rachel Hauck) beneath Jen Schriever's stark lights (Jen Schriever) abandon us in the uncertainty of the woman's thoughts as soon as they deposit us there.

The world around her fails to come to life because it's constructed from so many generic, regurgitated arguments, and is only briefly dislodged from its predictable axis by the mild intimation that the woman's ideological opponents may not be entirely wrong. After a few fleeting scenes of this romance, Zimmerman abandons it in favor of a return to the script's previous, facile form. The woman must fight the callous senator she believes disrespected her during her testimony about her son's death, which she does by deceiving her way into his home while her firearm is secured in her car, and confronting the choice of punishing him for his transgressions or taking the higher, more difficult road. You'll never guess which one she picks.

Except you will, because, to rational people, some choices are genuinely unthinkable. Yes, Zimmerman spins this play entirely from the woman's point of view, its words and opinions hers and hers alone, but it ends up proving her opponents' implicit (if, here, unstated) contention that personal responsibility and morality factor guide our actions more than physical tools. That the woman overcomes her personal demons of fear and hate by not giving in to them is all well and good, but she stops well short of deducing that her real journey is from myopia to tolerance, if not acceptance, of a mindset she once decried. Going all the way with that realization and its implications would be more daring, dramatic, and thought-provoking than the well-meaning but well-worn pabulum that is most of On the Exhale.

On the Exhale
Through April 2
The Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
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