BWW Review: Zeitgeist Stage Company Cements Its Imprint With World Premiere of TRIGGER WARNING
Written by Jacques Lamarre, Directed by David J. Miller; Set and Projection Design, Michael Flowers; Costume Design, Elizabeth Cole Sheehan; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, Jay Mobley; Stage Manager, Kayla Heal
CAST (in order of appearance): Liz Adams, Steve Auger, Kelley Estes, Naeemah A. White-Peppers, Holly Newman, Lilly Brenneman
Performances through May 4 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Black Box, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.ZeitgeistStage.com
Over the course of its eighteen seasons, Zeitgeist Stage Company has lived up to its name with programming that reflects consequential historical, cultural, and social issues of American life. As Producing Artistic Director David J. Miller and company bring down the curtain on their time on the Boston theater scene, it is fitting that their final production is the world premiere of Jacques Lamarre's Trigger Warning, a play which addresses the subject of school shootings, arguably one of the most highly-charged and important topics in the national debate.
Commissioned by ZSC to write the play, Lamarre has a personal interest in both mental health and gun violence. He lives in Connecticut, in close proximity to the sites of a trio of mass shootings in recent years. Trigger Warning turns the tables to explore the impact of the dramatic event on the family of the shooter, the parents and surviving sister of the 17-year old boy whose heinous attack on his high school results in the deaths of approximately five dozen students, faculty, and staff, as well as his own. To his credit, the playwright does not glorify or defend the boy's actions, but focuses on the unbearable weight that crushes his mother and father, dismantling The Remains of the traumatized family.
The story bursts out of the starting gate at a fever pitch and rarely slows down as developments pile up. Jackie (Liz Adams) and Murph (Steve Auger) go into panic mode when they are notified that their childrens' school is in lockdown. Mom gets daughter Meghan (Lilly Brenneman) on her cell phone, but Dad can't connect with son Travis. It is quickly established via Jackie's sister Amy (Kelley Estes), who learns it from her teenage son, that Travis is the shooter, and the magnitude of what's going on is unfathomable. Law enforcement arrives at the house to secure the crime scene, and the presence of no-nonsense Agent Pelletier (Naeemah A. White-Peppers) makes it quite clear that the Murphys' lives will never be the same again.
As the media swarms outside and the community reviles them, the parents hire an attorney (Holly Newman) to guide them through the thicket and an onslaught of lawsuits. The playwright uses Attorney Bates to probe the family background, uncovering Travis' troubling history and the measures tried and failed. Jackie and Murph alternate between questioning whether or not their actions were sufficient, and believing that they did the best they could. Meghan confides in her aunt that she was terrorized by her brother (she was also shot by him) and that her parents were incapable of controlling him. Lamarre dances around the edges of the boy's mental health issues, but could plumb greater depths in that area.
The majority of the action occurs in the Murphy living room, conveying an air of claustrophobia as they are increasingly imprisoned in their home. The outside world is represented by video projections of news snippets (welcome cameo appearances by Zeitgeist veterans Maureen Adduci, Damon Singletary, and Ashley Risteen), making it impossible for Jackie and Murph to shut it out. Jackie finds she is unwelcome at the church when she visits her pastor (White-Peppers), and Meghan goes to stay with Amy as she feels uncomfortable being in her own house. The parents have a dead son and a daughter who wants nothing to do with them.
Trigger Warning portrays a series of tragedies that rain down after the original catastrophic event. Most of us have the luxury of returning to our normal lives once the news dies down, until the next thing happens. However, Lamarre shows the demoralizing devastation that the shooter's family suffers, with very little, if any, support from anyone. It is not to say that he wishes to elicit sympathy for them, because they are not terribly sympathetic characters. Auger does find some humanity in Murph as a father and provider, despite his strong connection to the NRA and guns (his son used his AK47 in the massacre). His confusion and disbelief are palpable, until he finds his exit strategy.
Adams has a difficult story arc as she struggles to reconcile her innate mother's love with the realization that she created a monster. While it is totally credible that her character would go off the deep end, she teeters between going over the top, screaming like a banshee, or calmly trying to placate, á la June Cleaver. She and Auger establish a connection that convinces us that it is them against the world. Brenneman does a good job of conveying her disdain for her parents, even as she grapples with her new reality and finding herself. Estes is authentic as the lone support for her sister, standing strong in the face of her brother-in-law's vitriol.
Director Miller cedes his usual task of set design to Michael Flowers, who also handles projection design. The use of videos adds a sense of urgency to the verisimilitude of the piece, and sound designer Jay Mobley's insertion of musical selections during scene breaks creates another layer of connection for the audience. Lighting design is by Michael Clark Wonson and costume design is by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan. Stage Manager Kayla Heal is also responsible for props for the production. The world may end with a whimper, but Zeitgeist Stage Company goes out with a bang, leaving a void that will not be soon or easily filled.