On The Exhale: Gun Violence as Adrenaline on WNET

The timing in broadcasting a two-year-old play about gun violence may seem right, but it’s terribly wrong.

The WNET series Theater Close-Up has chosen to broadcast (and make available online) “On The Exhale,” Martin Zimmerman’s one-character play starring Marin Ireland, less than two weeks after the latest round of mass shootings.

When Roundabout presented this one-hour play in 2017, they promoted it as the effect of a random act of gun violence on a single mother.  But to me, it provokes a question I’ve asked repeatedly in dramatizations of mass shootings. Is the violence on stage an attempt to increase our understanding of the world around us, or just inject an adrenaline shot into the drama?

“On The Exhale” begins with Ireland as a college professor, saying: “You always imagined it happening to you,” and then telling us a story of a male student upset about the grade she’s given him, and  — “Entitlement mixes with adrenaline, with fear, with testosterone” – taking out a gun and shooting her: “Burning, stabbing, throbbing as he blasts and blasts away.”

She describes the event with such vivid detail that it would be easy to forget that she told us it’s something she merely imagined, until she says:   “And then you wake up.”

(Everything she says is spoken in the second person. She doesn’t say “I” – always “you,” although she is talking about herself. )

That first jolting twist is a sign of the jolts and twists to come, after we learn, first, that she is a single mother, and then that her seven-year-old son has been the victim of a mass shooting.

One can interpret the odd turn the tale takes — the strange actions that the woman engages in — as a study of the effects of grief.  She seems clearly deranged, frequently grinning – her grin often indistinguishable from a grimace – as she tells us, for example, how she drove to the gun shop where the killer had bought the assault rifle, determined to give her a piece of her mind… and then winds up buying the gun. She becomes obsessed with it. “To shoot a weapon well…is an act not unlike parenting..Like a child, a weapon won’t be satisfied until it dominates your every thought.”

The series of events that she relates, enhanced by a specificity of the language, and expertly performed by a masterful actress, is undeniably gripping.  One can also detect a kind of indirect political analysis in the woman’s  description of the cowardice and dishonesty of a pro-gun Senator who acts bored during testimony by survivors at a hearing on gun violence. But, ultimately, “In The Exhale” feels synthetic and manipulative, the character’s actions based not on any believable psychology, but rather on the playwright’s desire to create suspense. The suspense is in effect manifested as a series of questions the audience is forced to ask, all of them concerning violence:

Will she be shot by one of her students?

Will she become violent with the owner of the gun store where the shooter bought his weapon?

Will she shoot the Senator?

Using violence to inject adrenaline into a drama is standard practice among entertainment writers of a certain ilk. But it strikes me as unseemly to employ such a technique in a play that is ostensibly a serious look at the effects of gun violence. We become complicit in a blood sport. There are any number of other plays that would have been more appropriate to broadcast so soon after the horrors in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

On The Exhale
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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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