It has become an unwelcome if increasingly unvarying ritual of American life: the rising death toll ticked out in cellphone news flashes; the 24-hour cable news broadcasts of tearful parents and terror-stricken survivors interspersed with the carefully recycled but wanly impotent statements by elected leaders; the dueling op-eds by frustrated gun-control advocates and implacable defenders of gun rights; the release of the inevitably acne-pocked mug shot of the otherwise innocuous-looking teen who has been identified as the country’s latest mass killer.
Which also could describe the action of Ripe Frenzy, Jennifer Barclay's harrowing if offbeat new stage fiction about an all-too-typical school shooting massacre in a typically unassuming New York small town. But if Barclay's script at first seems to have little new to offer over similar movie attempts to probe the dark corners of what has become an ongoing national trauma, fasten your seatbelts. This theatrically deliberate and razor-edged Greenway Arts Alliance production (part of a three-theater National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere) builds its momentum slowly but when its climax finally comes, it packs a wallop that hits like an expertly aimed kick to the emotional solar plexus.
Part of that power comes from director Alana Dietz’s deftly handled staging. Her canny borrowing of the vocabulary of ’80s slasher movies — a calculated deployment of creepy sounds and eerie underscoring (both by the incomparable John Zalewski), surreal shifts in lighting (courtesy of designer Azra King-Abadi) and increasingly disturbing projections (by Jared Mezzocchi) that stand in for the baleful, predatory point of view of the evening’s real star, an adored son and student who is never seen but lurks just offstage.
Against this unsettling backdrop, the lights come up on the empty Tavis Theater in Tavistown High School (on designer Amanda Knehans’ bare set of exposed flats, draped set pieces and scattered dollhouse miniatures) as we are introduced to doting mother Zoe (a magnificent Elizabeth Ann Bennett). Almost unbearably ingratiating and defiantly upbeat (”Positivity is a choice I make to make the world a better place”), Zoe is also the town historian of Tavistown, New York, an upstate hamlet that holds the Guinness World Record for the most high school productions of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Aping Wilder’s classic stage paean to America’s lost innocence, which Zoe explains is being restaged by the students, she introduces both Tavistown and her two best friends and fellow school moms — Rumi-spouting English professor Miriam (the excellent Melody Butiu) and doctor Felicia (Renée-Marie Brewster in a finely wrought performance). The lifelong chums will join her in helping the kids re-create the 1992 production in which the three themselves starred. The female lead of Emily Webb will be played by Miriam’s daughter Hadley (an incandescent Tory Leigh-Anne Johnson, who also doubles as the Asperger-tinged Bethany); the male lead will be played by Felicia’s son Matt (the capable Liam Springthorpe). Zoe’s own boy is responsible for the uncomfortably expressionist production design.
It is precisely because the play so clearly telescopes its ultimate unfolding that Barclay is able to spike her action with the archest of dramatic ironies. Amid the women’s easy banter are countless casual instances of everyday “death” expressions that explode onstage like so many shock-cinema frights. Meanwhile, a grimmer irony emerges as reports of a mass school shooting in Michigan begin to filter in and add to the sense of growing unease — both in the fiction of the play and also in real life: Opening night at Greenway Court was charged with the weird parallax of the Santa Fe High School shooting, whose news broke only the previous day.
But Ripe Frenzy’s ultimate coup is its almost claustrophobically subjective focus on Zoe, whose defiant disconnect from the alarming obsessions that consume her perfectionist-loner of an alienated son serves to implicate her in what’s to come. Bennett delivers a wonderfully felt and ultimately heartrending portrayal of a sympathetic if over-controlling mother, whose elaborate, homespun façade of willful denial collapses around her in the worst imaginable way.
Amid a flawless ensemble, Johnson is particularly memorable in her double turns as the flighty, petulant Hadley and the guileless school misfit Bethany, whose frank admiration for the killer despite his crimes provides a final punctuating pathos for Barclay’s implicit argument that any culpability for the Parklands and Santa Fes and Sandy Hooks of the headlines is rightly owned by us all.
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax; through June 17. (323) 673-0544, greenwaycourttheatre.org.
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