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Local play explores emotional and political realities of mass shootings

“On the Exhale,” a 2017 play following a college professor in the shadow of her son’s death during a school shooting, opens at Theatre Exile on Dec. 4

In its latest production, Theatre Exile, a nonprofit company located at 13th and Reed Streets, is tackling gun violence through its upcoming production of Martín Zimmerman’s “On the Exhale,” a 2017 play following a college professor in the shadow of her son’s death during a school shooting. Above: Actress Suli Holum stars in the one-woman show. (Photo by Robert Hakalski/special to SPR)

With every breaking news alert, society becomes increasingly desensitized to mass shootings.

This nearly normalized digestion of tragedy has, perhaps, distorted the world’s discernment toward guns and grief.

In their latest production, Theatre Exile, a nonprofit company located at 1340 S. 13th St. (at Reed Street), is tackling the vexed topic through its upcoming production of Martín Zimmerman’s “On the Exhale,” a 2017 play following a college professor in the shadow of her son’s death during a school shooting.

Directed by longtime Theatre Exile associate Matt Pfeiffer, the one-woman show, which runs from Dec. 4 to 22, stars prominent New York and Philadelphia-based actress, director and playwright Suli Holum.

Marking her Theatre Exile debut, Holum, a member of The Wilma HotHouse and Artistic Director of The Work, an incubator for new performance, has long admired the South Philly-based company’s approach toward performance.

“Their work isn’t edgy for the sake of being edgy,” said Holum, who was a founding member of Pig Iron Theatre Company and co-artistic director of Stein|Holum Projects. “But edgy for the sake of starting really rich conversations about important topics.”

“On the Exhale” works particularly to spark dialogue surrounding an especially controversial theme.

Considering the vast emotional and psychological influence of gun control, seeking an avenue to explore the subject can feel progressively complicated now more than ever.

However, theater, namely a one-woman production, can invite audiences into an emotional and physical space that offers a different kind of perception through its stripped-down simplicity.

“It’s not just theater itself, but the specific structure of a solo performance where there’s very little set,” Holum said. “No props. Just me and the words and the audiences. So it’s this real old-school storytelling. Just the story and the storyteller and the audiences who are there to hear the story. There is a real intimacy there.”

Holum says the playwright has performed an exceptional task of humanizing a topic often reduced to sound bites.

The critically acclaimed play strives to regain what’s lost in the ongoing back-and-forth debate regarding gun violence.

In the production’s effort to resurrect sympathy, the cast and crew think the work is in particularly appropriate hands.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on doing theater that has a level of immediacy,” said Pfeiffer, who is an associate artistic director of Theatre Exile. “…There’s something about the immediacy and intimacy of theater that I hope allows audiences to feel some of the emotional weight that they don’t have access to or feel numb to or think more critically about what they believe.”

Pfeiffer stresses that great plays, such as this one, ask great questions.

“On the Exhale” delves into political components, as the lead character struggles to confront policy inaction unfolding on a legislature level.

But for the cast and crew, the ultimate goal involves recovering humanity in response to mass shootings. 

“I’m less concerned about the play being politically actionable than I am about connecting to people on a human level,” Pfeiffer said. “If it connects on a human level, that will make them think more critically about their relationship not only to guns but to just the responsibility that we owe to each other, and this play really confronts the fallout of how badly these tragedies affect the survivors. My hope – it inspires people to be more sympathetic.”

Through recouping commiseration, maybe society’s response to tragedy will be less unreactive and more proactive.

As the lead character transforms her unimaginable grief into action, ideally, audiences might also feel inclined to work toward solutions surrounding gun violence.

Even if that means merely remembering compassion. 

“There’s no doubt that the story of this play – that (the character’s) story – is a tragic story,” Holum said. “She’s telling a story of tragedy but where she arrives is in a place of moving forward, so that’s ultimately what feels most important to us. When you invite an audience to come and be with you and sit with tragedy, it’s very important to make an offering for a way of moving.”

gmaiorano@newspapermediagroup.com 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano

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