Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play has been mounted by Uprising Theatre as a co-world premiere with The Road Theatre Company (Los Angles) and Chapel Theatre Collective (Milwaukie, Oregon). With progress in addressing this national maelstrom stalled between political and economic interests, this play arrives not a moment too soon. Uprising Theatre performs in a tiny space, but as helmed by up and coming director Shalee Mae Coleman it unspools with shattering force.
Shannon is a thirty-something mom with two toddlers having one of those really tough mornings. All she wants is for her boys to pay well and safely on the playground so she can sit on a nearby bench and refuel with some coffee. When her modest goals are thwarted, Shannon explodes with anger at her kids, then is thoroughly humiliated upon realizing another woman who recently moved into the neighborhood has witnessed the entire outburst. Shannon makes profuse apologies, excuses, and disclaimers to Leah, but Leah is totally chill about the whole thing, assuring Shannon that she also has wretched moments dealing with her toddler twins and the infant she carries in a sling, asking her. The two women find refuge in one another, starved for support from another mom who tries to do all the progressive, child-development-expert-approved things their kids deserve, but sometimes finds it all too much.
They quickly become fast friends, leading into scene two in which they have gotten together as a foursome - Shannon and husband, Josh, having dinner, drinks, and a few hits of weed at Leah and Danny's home. Both couples are California transplants, Leah and Danny from Montana, Shannon and Josh from Illinois, so without long-time friends or extended family to turn to, they fall upon each-other, declaring each other their best friends and support network planning date night child care exchanges and baseball game outings. Each couple thinks the other pair are really cool. They share the same tastes, the same child-rearing practices, the same progressive liberal political view. Until .
When Josh's political rant against the current president veers into the topic of gun-control, Danny turns visibly cold. It turns out that he owns guns, enjoys shooting guns, and upholds his rights to own guns and to be armed in order to protect himself, views he shares with Leah. Leah and Shannon try to play down the significance of this difference, but Josh is horrified at the thought that his children have been playing in a home that contains guns. Danny and Leah assure him they too believe in stricter background checks and other measures to reduce gun violence, but to Danny, theirs is too slippery a slope to abide, and the night of adult friend-making comes to a terse end.
Josh's virulent reaction to his near-friends guns infects his relationship with Shannon, and Friends with Guns becomes a play about more than the two side of the gun debates. It touches on the challenges marriages face in maintaining total honesty, the ways in which partners subtly and not so subtly exercise control, and what it really means to feel safe. Walker covers a lot of ground, and if not all of the issues she raises are fully developed, and a couple of key plot points occur too swiftly to feel completely natural - she nonetheless has written a strong play that insists we consider the issues in a broader context. Her characters are fully believable adults who speak with authentic voices, and her narrative transitions adeptly from the social comedy of the first couple of scenes to a rising line of tension that comes to an ending likely to leave you breathless.
Four actors are brightly cast as this millennial quartet. Jen Scott is superb at conveying Shannon's excessive drive to be good enough as a parent, wife, and realtor, and the underlying anxieties that undermine her best efforts. While a change in her characters temperament occurs surprisingly quickly, Scott portrays Shannon's with persuasive truth. Tony Larking scores a bullseye as Josh, a self-styled feminist guy who fails to check his perceptions of himself with others, so that when his submerged emotions erupt it feels all too believable.
Jess Grams is totally winning as Leah, delightfully deadpan in the early comedic moments, steady and sure of her values when things turn serious. She imbeds Leah with warmth and generosity, using facial expressions wonderfully to convey everything from disgust to delight to determination. Completing the foursome, Danté Pirtle gives a strong performance as Danny, frustrated by a society that expects him to live by the norms of the categories of people it has constructed.
Coleman maintains a steady flow through the play, preserving tension through the unavoidable pauses that occur during scene changes. The simple stage set uses a few wooden cubes to form a park bench, a patio table and chairs, and other set pieces, while Jake Otto's lighting designs and Claire Avitabile's sound design help to shade the variations in tone intensity as the play's narrative grip tightens, especially in a scene set at the ocean that provides a pivotal transition in the plot.
The play presents a good number of facts about the risks of gun ownership on increased likelihood of being killed by a gun, of suicide, and other disturbing outcomes that make the belief that people protect themselves by owning a gun seem vacuous. While the gun safety arguments are sound enough, Danny and Leah's beliefs about owning guns are both legal and logical. Walker depicts them as well-grounded, neurosis-free individuals, while the anti-gun Josh and Shannon reveal a lot of turmoil beneath their liberal surfaces. By the end, Walker's cunning plotline has turned the tables back and forth, so that by the end, the troubling truth beneath both side's arguments are displayed.
As in Uprising Theatre's outstanding production of The Gun Show last spring, multiple perspectives Friends with Guns shows the fallacy of standing so firmly on one side of an ideological divide that you never will find common ground with those on the other side.
Throughout 2019, Uprising Theatre has been mounting shows concerning the gun safety/gun control debates, with opportunities for audience discussion following each performance. They are providing an essential service to our community, but don't see Friends with Guns just because it may help you to be a better informed, more thoughtful citizen. Go because, in addition to that, you will be entertained and moved by a stirring play in a finely mounted production.
Friends with Guns, produced by Uprising Theatre Company, continues through October 5, 2019, at Off Leash Art Box, 4200 E. 54th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00 general admission; pay what you can: $5.00 - $15.00; support Uprising Theatre, $25.00 - $50.00. For tickets go to www.uprisingtheatreco.com.
Playwright: Stephanie Alison Walker; Director: Shalee Mae Coleman; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting Design: Jake Otto; Sound Design: Claire Avitabile; Fight Choreography: Jessica Thienes; Stage Manager: Heather Burmeister.
Cast: Jes Grams (Leah), Tony Larking (Josh), Danté Pirtle (Danny), Jen Scott (Shannon).