It’s surreal to turn off the television, go out to the theater, and watch a fictionalized depiction of events similar to those happening in real time. That’s how I felt when I went to see New City Stage Company’s world premiere of Roseburg, Ginger Dayle’s new drama about Robert F. Kennedy, school shootings, and gun control.
No time like the present (except the past)
It’s a prescient play. As violence has erupted in the past week, one of the questions people have been asking is how this compares to 1968 when Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were assassinated, and so many young men died in Vietnam. In Roseburg, Dayle juxtaposes two incidents: Kennedy’s 1968 campaign speech at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College only weeks before his death and the mass shooting there in October, 2015.
It’s a painful play to watch, humanizing a victim of violence and a perpetrator of it, after a week filled with shootings in which good people died on both sides of the argument about guns and violence and police brutality and racism. Even more difficult is watching actors handle rifles and pistols on a stage that is just a few feet away. What if, I keep thinking, one of those guns is loaded? How easy it would be to transform a night at the theater into a tragedy. I don’t want to be thinking those thoughts.
The play follows Kennedy as he campaigns in Oregon. We see him wrestle with the domestic issues of crime and poverty while his advisors advise him to focus on ending the war in Vietnam. In a talk at the community college, he is cornered into advocating gun control, which may have cost him the Oregon primary.
Meanwhile, in 2015, 26-year-old Chris Harper-Mercer (Jackie DiFernando) wrestles with finding a way to be accepted. He has Asperger’s, claims his mother, Laura (Kayley Tarpley), a nurse and gun advocate who moderates a pro-gun chat room, gleefully describing gunshot wounds and insisting mental illness is no barrier to owning a gun. Casting a female as Harper-Mercer creates a sexual ambiguity for the character, similar to the depiction of Bradley Manning in Inis Nua’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, and makes us even more aware of his struggles to fit in.
The journeys of both men end in tragedy through the use of guns, and that is clearly the point of the play.
Russ Widdall owns the part of Robert F. Kennedy, which he played previously in New City Stages’s 2013 production of RFK. Widdall makes us feel as if we’re peering behind the scenes of Bobby’s public persona to understand the struggles of the man beneath.
The rest of the cast are students or recent grads and show tremendous promise, although some seemed a bit young for the parts they were playing. But it also gives a sense of how young many of us were when we marched to end the war and champion the social justice issues of 1968.
The set, by scenic designer Reagan Ganis, uses a backdrop of images that enhance the narrative, with minimal furniture that is easily moved on and off stage. The play moves easily between past and not-so-distant past, and uses the idea of chat rooms to show us how people communicate today.
Preaching to the choir and the convention
Dayle, who is also founding artistic director of New City Stage, describes this as a workshop production, and while it’s a strong piece, it needs trimming, especially in its lengthy first act.
A larger question might be what theater like this adds to the ongoing discussion about violence and guns, or our inability to find a solution to the violence. The play ends with an impassioned plea to stop the killing, but offers no suggestions of how to get there.
This play’s run continues through the Democratic National Convention, and in many ways it’s preaching to the choir. How is it possible to reach across the aisle and make it a true discussion and not just more rhetoric? What would it take for theater to be truly transformative? Maybe this play does what theater can do: It advances the discussion.