BWW Review: FRIENDS WITH GUNS by Uprising Productions at Off Leash Art Box
Issue driven theater can too often be, well, bad theater: haranguing, simplistic, didactic, predictable. Thankfully, FRIENDS WITH GUNS avoids those pitfalls. Playwright Stephanie Alison Walker, a frequent finalist in a handful of prestigious competitions, has written a contemporary piece from a feminist point of view which doesn't take sides. If there is a message here, it is that we need to commit to listening to one another, especially if we vehemently disagree.
The title is apt. We meet two married couples, both with young children. They live in the same neighborhood. All four adults identify as progressive. They seem to agree on most things--except for guns.
The women are the first to connect, at the neighborhood playground way too early one morning. Shannon (Jen Scott) opens the play with a long, active, conflicted monologue where she alternately yells at and pleads with her two (invisible) kids; she's wound pretty tight, it's clear. Leah (Jess Grams) shows up with a baby slung around her body, also exhausted and dishevelled, but with a more laid-back vibe. Offering empathy without judgement, she is able to settle Shannon down and a friendship they both need begins.
Abandoning sanctimonious sentimentality around mothering in favor of a more realistic depiction of how exhausting and emotionally messy that vital work can be is just one of the ways this play presents a feminist point of view. Another is that the relationship between the two women centers the story; the men are their sidekicks, essentially, dragged into relationship at their wives' urging.
At first all seems well. The foursome have a backyard get together after their kids are down for the night, sharing drinks and weed and pushing back against the isolation of child-rearing in suburbia. That is, until it becomes clear that Leah and her husband Danny (Dante Pirtle) own multiple guns and enjoy shooting, whereas Shannon and her husband Josh (Tony Larkin) are adamantly anti-gun to the point that the new friendship blows up.
Playwright Walker has a way with words; the dialogue here seems very contemporary and believable, while occasionally rising to eloquence. My favorite line was this, from Leah, about women: "Fear is the skin sewn on our bodies when we are born."
The play is structured as a series of about a dozen scenes, mostly between two people at a time, broken into two acts. There's a lot here about marital dynamics, and the way that change in one partner can unsettle the other.
Leah provides the moral center of the play, at the same time that she perhaps likes to mess with people a little too much: in Jess Grams' portrayal, she's a complex character. Shannon travels the longest character arc. The play's plot really hangs most on choices and discoveries she makes. Actor Jen Scott makes her anxieties palpable while also furnishing flashes of charm. Dante Pirtle plays Danny with both wariness and exasperation. He's the least disclosive of the four about his past, though it is clear that, as a person of color, he has good reason to feel the need for personal protection in a way that Josh, who is white, does not. Tony Larkin as Josh shoulders the job of playing the least likeable of the foursome. HIs rigidity is initially cloaked in relaxed authority but we come to see that he is actually dangerously volatile, out of touch with his own depths.
FRIENDS WITH GUNS is enjoying a three-way rolling world premiere this year, with this show in Minneapolis by Uprising Productions, and other companies mounting versions in Portland, Oregon, and in Los Angeles, where the playwright lives.
Uprising Productions aims to bring high quality theater around issues of social justice to a diverse audience. FRIENDS WITH GUNS is well suited to this mission. For this show, Uprising is using Off Leash Art Box, a simple black box with risers seating only about 50 people, at a modest commercial intersection in a residential neighborhood. Bare bones production values place the emphasis squarely on the text and the conundrums it lays out.
Uprising always partners with community non-profits doing work related to the issues in the show at hand. They host lobby tables with information and recommended direct action items at every performance. Each performance is also followed by a moderated discussion with those audience members who choose to stay. At the performance I attended, the point was made that statistics (which are frequently used as ammunition by Josh) just don't change minds; personal stories can. Hence the importance of the kind of storytelling theater can provide--from the time of the Greeks, where citizens were required to attend plays that raised vital questions, straight through to the present.
FRIENDS WITH GUNS runs Fridays through Mondays until October 5. It's well worth a visit.
Photo credit: Shannon Kearns