Playwright Marja-Lewis Ryan focuses an up-close-and-personal lens on the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our country in her World Premiere drama One In The Chamber, one of the most powerful new plays I’ve seen in a good long while, and as superbly acted a production as any writer/director could possibly wish for.
Denverites Charles and Helen Stewart saw their perfect suburban life shattered six years ago when the second oldest of their four kids, ten-year-old Adam, accidentally shot his year-younger brother Joey to death, leaving his bereaved parents and their three remaining children to pick up the pieces of an unspeakable tragedy.
Adam’s initial two years of juvenile detention have since been followed by four years of in-home parole, court-mandated therapy, and regular visits with a parole officer, but this could at last come to an end should 30ish social worker Jennifer Schwartz report back positively on this morning’s interviews with Adam’s parents, seventeen-year-old Kaylee, seven-year-old Ruthie, and the now sixteen-year-old shooter himself.
Any hopes that Jennifer will find the Stewart home in any semblance of order this Saturday morning are snuffed out when the social worker arrives to find the house a cluttered mess, the result of Helen’s mistaken certainty that the interview was still a day away.
Add to that the fact that teen rebel Kaylee has been out all night who knows where and it’s a particularly surly Helen who greets the prim-and-proper Jennifer with a less than friendly welcome.
The ever affable Charles is another matter, though his perpetual good nature may stem from the fact that pulling double-shifts keeps him far removed from family turmoil sixty-five hours a week.
Still, neither Kaylee’s absence nor Helen’s churlishness nor the fact that Adam has elected to stay shut up in his room till the rest of the family gets interviewed will stop Jennifer from her appointed task, and the one-on-ones begin. (At least Kaylee does finally arrive mid Jennifer’s interview with Helen, albeit with an “I hate you!” that does nothing to improve Mom’s mood.)
As Jennifer probes each family member’s reaction to the events of six years prior and as she attempts to piece together a picture of exactly how Joey’s death has impacted the Stewart family, one fact becomes disturbingly clear, at least to those of us who assume that any parent suffering the gunshot death of a child will surely, immediately become fervently anti-NRA.
The Stewarts still have four guns in their house, guns used for hunting, for killing critters that may crawl into the family vegetable garden, for “self-protection,” and as part of medic Charles’ service in the US Army Reserves, and when Jennifer asks if he has ever considered removing the guns, Charles’ response is a simple, unequivocal “No. Not even after.”
Ryan’s perceptive script allows us, with Jennifer as our stand-in, to discover and explore, little by little, the dynamics of a family decimated by an accidental yet entirely preventable fatal shooting, even if Charles and Helen don’t seem to realize just how preventable it was.
Ryan’s characters defy easy categorization. For instance, if you assume that bad girl Kaylee is any kind of academic slouch, think again, or if you believe that Charles’s good humor indicates that he’s gotten over it all, you’d be wrong there too.
Most intriguing of all is Helen, who despite being bad-tempered as all get-out is hardly an unloving parent, as her relationship with the adorably precocious Ruthie makes abundantly clear. Like Becca in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, Helen can’t help blaming herself for what happened to her child. Still, unlike the gun that took Joey’s life, the car that ran down Becca’s Danny was not designed as a killing machine, and the teenager driving it was not a family member whose continued presence under the same roof is a daily reminder of a mother’s loss.
As must be obvious by now, One In The Chamber will have you thinking and talking about its characters and their lives long after it leaves you punched in the gut.
Not only does playwright Ryan manage miraculously to get deep inside the head of five very different members of a fictional family that feels entirely real, the performances she as director has elicited from her all-around superb cast are as memorable as it gets, beginning with tour-de-force work by Heidi Sulzman as Helen, as richly layered and devastatingly powerful a depiction of grief and anger and guilt and resentment as you will see any time soon.
Robert Bella’s good-natured Charles conceals oceans of pain and sorrow beneath an outwardly cheerful manner, newcomer Kelli Anderson makes Kaylee far more than just your average everyday angry teen, and Fenix Isabella is that rarity, a child actor without the slightest hint of “child actor” in her.
As for Emily Peck (who costarred opposite Ryan in the Ryan-penned film festival favorite The Four Faced Liar), her Jennifer keeps us guessing as to what’s going on inside the fish-out-of-water social worker’s head all the way up to the play’s final moments that reveal what an amazing actress we’ve been witnessing all along.
Last but not least is the gifted young Alec Frasier, whose revelatory performance as Adam is one of exquisite subtlety and grace. Simply put, Frasier will break your heart in pieces.
Scenic designer Michael Fitzgerald’s meticulously detailed set may well be the messiest kitchen/dinette you’ve ever seen on an intimate L.A. theater stage, just what Ryan’s script calls for and then some, and Jenn Burkhardt lights it to perfection.
Hannah Kruger is stage manager. One In The Chamber is presented by 6140 Productions in association with Theatre Planners, Racquel Lehrman, Victoria Watson, Lynne Peck, Joe Cirincione, Ed Ryan, and Robin Greenspun.
World Premieres not part of a theater company season can easily be overlooked by the playgoing public, and had it not been for my recent viewing of The Four Faced Liar, One In The Chamber might have missed my attention.
Thank goodness it didn’t. It is as fine a new play and as powerful an intimate theater production as you’re likely to see all year, and with performances continuing through September 7, it would be a crime for audiences to miss the stunning One In The Chamber.
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood.
August 3, 2014
Photos: Chelsea Coleman Photography