Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
E. M. Lewis is the prolific playwright of The Gun Show. She may be best known locally for her play Song of Extinction, winner of the American Theatre Critics Association Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Award in 2009, which had a much-lauded Theater Latté Da production staged at the Guthrie in 2011. The Gun Show premiered in 2014 in Chicago, and has since been staged in more than thirty regional theaters around the country.
In the five years since The Gun Show premiered, our nation has born witness to numerous tragic deaths by gun. These include headline-making mass shootings, whether framed as hate crimes or other forms of forms of rage run amok, but far more deaths go unmarked except by the deceased loved one. These include accidental gun discharges, guns improperly stored and found by children, violent exchanges among gangs, crimes of passion, and suicide. Little progress has been made on the national stage to address this public health crisis, and efforts by states have been slipshod.
Lewis has divided her play into five stories, all told by the "Playwright," the sole character, who wants to tell her personal account of the pleasures and nightmares guns have brought to her life. She tells us straight away that she is too cowardly to play herself, so an actor has taken her part on stage. The actor in this case is Lauren Diesch, who gives a brilliant performance, in short order blurring the distinction between actor and author, making the audience feel as if we are hearing these five stories from the mouth and heart of the person who experienced them.
The first of the stories is about growing up in rural Oregon, a place where most everyone has guns, and most everyone loves guns. Guns for hunting, guns for protection on farms where the county sheriff is an hour's drive away, guns just for fun. It is a universe where guns and gun ownership have none of the negative baggage attributed to them by gun-control activists. The second story is more personal, in which the Playwright describes how her then-boyfriend Irwin, who becomes her husband, taught her to fire a gun. She tells us how romantic and sexy and hot it all felt, and about the sense of power it gave her. And how much fun she and Irwin had together, drinking beer and firing guns.
Things get murkier in the third story, with the Playwright working in a small book store with her friend Laurie when a man comes in and robs them at gunpoint. Harris' character, the Playwright, describes in detail the feelings and reflexive responses, especially chilling when she points out how nervous the man is, how his hand holding the gun is trembling, and that he was as likely to shoot her by accident as on purpose.
A trip into New York City on a New Jersey Transit train soon after moving to New Jersey provides the context for her fourth story, which involves an encounter with a police officer in Penn Station behaving very unprofessionally. No shots are fired, no guns drawn, but the cop clearly has a close relationship with his sidearm, something which triggered great fear in the Playwright. The fifth and final story is the most heartbreaking, and makes the most powerful case for fighting back against those in the extreme camps of both sides of the gun debate who control the narrative, aided and abetted by the media. Even after terrible loss, the Playwright tells us she still doesn't want to take all guns away, but she wishes she had taken away that one.
In the intimate Off Leash Art Box, Lauren Diesch, as the Playwright, has an easy time making eye contact with each audience member, speaking in an informal manner that conveys the feeling that she is just talking with us, rather than acting a part in a play. Director Emily England may well have told Diesch, just keep going, as if you are in conversation with close friends with whom you can let it all out. Throughout, Lewis' passionate text and Diesch's assured performance make it clear that the issue is complicated, and that the best way to understand is through the stories of those who love guns, of those who take guns for granted as part of life, of those who oppose free rein gun ownership on principal, and of those who have personally paid the price for our inability to find common ground.
The physical production is extremely spare, with a set composed of only a table, a chair, and a bookshelf containing some key props. The Playwright is costumed like anyone you might see on line in the post office or digging in a garden in the rural Northwest. Lighting, designed by Jake Otto, is used to intensify or broaden the range of the Playwright's feelings, focused in as she reveals her innermost pain, going wide when she reaches out to urge her audience to engage in the conversation about guns.
Toward that end, Uprising Theatre is working with two community partners, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an advocacy group, and Survivor Resources, an organization that provides immediate and long-term support for family and friends affected by suicide, homicide, overdose, or accidental death. Both organizations have staff and information available in the theater lobby.
The Gun Show is worth seeing for Lauren Diesch's superb performance alone. More than that, however, it provides insights, facts and pathways for having this hard conversation that continues to elude our elected leaders. The Playwright tells us, "Guns for everyone doesn't equal safety. No guns doesn't equal safety. There is no fucking safety." While, in the absolute sense, that is no doubt true, she knows, and we do too, that we can do much, much better.
The Gun Show, through May 18, 2019, by Uprising Theatre Company at Off Leash Art Box, 4200 E. 54th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $20.00, or pay what you can starting at $5.00. For tickets, visit www.uprisingtheatreco.com.
Playwright: E. M. Lewis; Director: Emily England; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting Design: Jake Otto; Stage Manager: Elizabeth Larson.