In “This Flat Earth,” 13-year-old Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis) doesn’t understand why the newspaper article about the school shooting that killed nine of her classmates has the word “Another” in the headline.
“Has this happened before?”
Her father Dan (Lucas Papaelias) reluctantly informs her that it has.
“If this has happened before, why would everybody be acting so shocked?…Why don’t the grown-ups just fix it?”
Julie may sound like the most naïve teenager in America, especially given the new mass movement against gun violence that is led by teenagers. But her exchange with her father is one of several resonant moments in Lindsey Ferrentino’s drama, which takes a more oblique approach than most of the other plays about school shootings that I’ve seen — and I’ve seen too many.
The playwright, who made a splash with Ugly Lies the Bone in 2015, which focuses on high-tech efforts to rehabilitate a severely disabled soldier, and, currently, Amy and the Orphans, which tells the story of a character with Down Syndrome, is clearly committed to dramatizing social issues. But she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to explain an inexplicable event. The details of the shooting that has the characters reeling are offered in disconnected bits and piece, and kept vague. Instead, “This Flat Earth” largely focuses on the small, subtly devastating (and sometimes amusing!) effects on a handful of characters in the aftermath.
When the play begins, the shooting is in the past, but so recent that Julie and her best friend Zander (Ian Saint-Germain) have not yet returned to school. They are in her bedroom trying to watch a horror movie. Julie can’t get past how fake it is: “Blood doesn’t really look like that…” Left unspoken is how she knows this. As the play progresses, we learn in just such understated ways (and some more obvious) how the shooting has been affecting the two of them, and how it makes them feel isolated. (Dane Laffrey’s set — of four separate rooms on two levels — emphasizes that segregation, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting underscores how alienating the world feels to them.) We also see the expected and unexpected ways the mass shooting has affected Lisa (Cassie Beck), the mother of a classmate, Noelle, who was killed.
The characters are often awkward. To pick just one of many examples: Is it still appropriate to call Lisa “Noelle’s mom,” or should she now be Mrs. Harris?
“Sometimes, you have to do things that make you uncomfortable,” Dan tells Julie after she rudely rejects Lisa’s invitation to dinner. “That’s basically all being an adult is: Just one awkward social interaction after another.”
“But I’m not an adult,” Julie protests.
“Well, it’s part of growing up then.”
There is a resistance to the usual platitudes: Lisa can’t stand being told by one more person that they “can’t imagine” what she’s going through. Of course they can imagine it!
There are odd feelings of guilt. “I cried more when my dog died,” Zander confesses to Julie. “Does that make me a bad person?” She reassures him: “You knew your dog better. Plus he could do so many cool tricks.”
These observations feel knowing and assured, made all the more credible because of a persuasive cast, the steady direction by Rebecca Taichman, and the playwright’s playable specifics for her main characters. Zander and Julie, childish and scared on one level, care for one another in a mature way. They also exhibit the beginnings of a mutual adolescent crush, which we begin to realize may have been caused, or at least sped up, by the trauma. Julie’s dad Dan is a former stand-up comic who now works for the town’s water department. They live in the poorer hill district of the unnamed town, but he snuck Julie into a school in the wealthier district, which is why Zander has a laptop and a cell phone and Julie can’t afford them. Dan’s well-meaning decision helps fuel what little plot there is in a play that is most successful as a character study of grief or shock or fear.
Yet Ferrentino doesn’t seem satisfied in keeping to the concrete. She seems to want to suggest something more profound. The title provides a clue. It refers to a class report on Christopher Columbus that Julie didn’t get to deliver on the day of the shooting, in which she explains that people in Columbus’s day believed the earth was flat. “Now we think it’s funny they thought that,” Julie says in her report, which her father asks her to recite for him. But “what’re the questions right now that in the future people will laugh at us for not answering?” And, if we’re paying attention, we realize those current-day questions include the ones spoken earlier by the naïve Julie: Why is everybody so shocked about shootings since they keep on happening in America? Why isn’t anybody fixing it?
Much of this, as I said, has some resonance. But the playwright doesn’t stop at such clear, careful indirection. There is a cellist (Christine Kim), periodically playing Bach’s Cello Suite, and then a fifth character, the upstairs neighbor Cloris (Lynda Gravatt), who used to be a cellist, and sees the past clearly; she can also see into the future, as we witness in a surreal extended final scene that feels influenced by “Our Town.” The cellist scenes demonstrate the thin line that can exist between artful and arty, and “This Flat Earth” occasionally goes over the line.
Click on any photographs by Joan Marcus to see them enlarged.
This Flat Earth
Written by Lindsey Ferrentino, directed by Rebecca Taichman
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel.
Cast: Cassie Beck, Ella Kennedy Davis as Julie, Lynda Gravátt, Lucas Papaelias and Ian Saint-Germain as Zander. cellist Christine Kim.
Running time: 90 minutes
This Flat Earth is scheduled to run through April 29, 2018