Martín Zimmerman’s On the Exhale at the Roundabout Theatre Company was a 60-minute masterclass in non-polemical and thus effective theatrical activism, anchored by the best performance of last season by Marin Ireland and the ingenious direction of Leigh Silverman.
Zimmerman, Ireland, Silverman (their names even go together!), and the rest of the artists involved seemed to understand that sociopolitical issues are only issues because people see them differently. To solve them, individual minds must be changed towards greater unification of the collective consciousness. The strongest way to meet this lofty goal is by bridging audience members’ personal experiences to those of victims most affected by the sociopolitical issues, in this case being gun control.
On the Exhale depicts a woman coming to terms with a parent’s worst gun-control-centric fear: the murder of their child in a school shooting. Making the audience not only comprehend but actually feel every side of this contentious issue through her plight requires a fully created (in writing) and realized (in performance) character, all on display here. This issue is as nuanced and complex as the humans wrestling with it, thus both need to be treated with a deep yet delicate humanity to be sufficiently captured.
The key component to achieving this end is that the mother – and thus the audience – literally views the issue through oppositional eyes at different times, embodying the crucial notion that one person, like one issue, can simultaneously contain multitudes of positives and negatives, yet conclusive arbitration between them is still possible.
This idea connects to a fundamental concept of art, namely that audiences, though stuck in their corporeally-limited perspectives, can still experience the experience of others. This alchemic equation implicitly calls to mind Aristotle’s foundational conception of theatre’s power to induce fear and pity by harkening back to a foundational dramaturgy of theatre: an orator telling a story to a collection of souls in a shared space, which makes the always-tricky but here perfect solo-monologue-structure so integral.
On the Exhale records the present for posterity by entrusting the audience – and all artists involved with subsequent revivals – to pass down this story. The artistic witnesses are expected to help sufferers like the main character by combatting what allowed her tragedy to take place: a lack of gun control.
The use of the second-person “you” throughout emphasizes this point, as if the audience are the ones this tragic story she’s telling is about, serving as a reminder of how easily it could be. Audiences obviously assume the story is about her since she’s the only body on stage, but her pronoun choice insists it’s about us.
In truth, it’s about neither since theatre is performative illusion. The most affecting artistic activism notes the difference between fact and fiction, while also acknowledging how the latter can positively alter the former. The collective “you” reaffirms the notion that we’re all in this together, with this being our country’s fight to resolve sociopolitical issues. As such, “you” must pertain to everyone.
The one-woman dramaturgy also deepens and enriches the play by reflecting its subject: the actress’ fearfully tenuous control over the copious amounts of memorized lines to deliver – with no one else around to help by cueing her – relates to the fearfully tenuous control afforded by guns to their owners. The loneliness of this dramaturgy is also fitting; even though tragedies can rip us from our loved ones, the institution of society itself prevents us from being alone. If a societal tragedy cuts off an individual from a community, it’s our duty to fight for her by ensuring others avoid her despondent fate.
The precise set design further increases the character’s isolation and fear. The darkness surrounding the set represents her solitude, specifically the void violence creates but cannot fill through revenge. The floor and ceiling – the only non-black architecture – look like the walls of life that we fear may collapse down on us at any moment.
Finally, the abruptly-brief runtime reinforces the dread that our lives may end at any moment’s notice, far too soon.
Have I made it clear that thought was put into every aspect of the production to communicate as much as possible in only 60 minutes? The best sort of dramaturgy boasts inseparable form and content, both feeding each other. In addition, the best sort of character-building consists of sociopolitical currents that are shot through and inseparable from their identities in a reciprocally-defining relationship.
Characters on stage are of course nothing without their performers, which brings me to the last but literally opposite of least: Marin Ireland. Her taste for top-notch material written by promising up-and-comers is only surpassed by her immense talent. She’s a true off-Broadway treasure. With nothing but herself (and a phenomenally-written character), she not only commands AND demands attention, but also transforms into by bringing to startling life an achingly real person, a mandatory ingredient in any successful theatrical activism stew.
I want to end by commending Roundabout Underground, which has become nothing less than a full-on breeding ground for some of the most pressingly relevant plays and playwrights produced in New York City every year, with Martín Zimmerman and his On the Exhale being no exception.