The horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting still resonates today, more than four years later. Roundabout Theatre Company’s one-woman show On The Exhale addresses this atrocity through the monologue of a woman who finds herself unexpectedly connected to the tragic event. This uncomfortable but important topic is made palatable by a wonderful team comprised of actor Marin Ireland, playwright Martín Zimmerman, and director Leigh Silverman, who brilliantly present the nuances of a woman going through something unimaginable.
Ireland is a women’s studies professor in a small college town in Connecticut. She is already on edge about the state’s latest concealed carry law that has forced businesses that do not welcome guns in their establishments to display stickers of a gun with a line through it. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, she muses, sort of like an opt-in for all the crazy people so the sane ones know to stay away? She is clearly anti-gun and, not only that, suffers from anxiety dreams as a result of a student’s hostile comments to her grade on his paper. She has even arranged her office so she can make a quick escape should the need arise.
Which is why, upon learning there’s a shooter at the school, she assumes it’s her school where she teaches. The unthinkable revelation that, no, it’s actually the elementary school sends her into a tailspin that culminates in an unexpected and complicated but profoundly human response.
Directed with a light touch by Silverman and with a minimal set (Rachel Hauck) and lighting (Jen Schriever), On The Exhale has an intimacy that feels more like a therapy session than a play. The drama is there but Ireland doesn’t play it up. It’s more of a confessional, somewhat matter-of-fact manner of speaking, which is not to say emotionless because there is plenty of emotion. But there is a sort of detachment as Ireland refers to herself in the second person (“you”), which has the effect of minimizing the sting and burden of the nightmare for the audience.
There is no way to make sense of such a senseless act but I’m glad for plays like On The Exhale that put forth stories of humanity’s triumph in the face of tragedy.