Theatre Exile opens its first full season in its revamped South Philly home with Martín Zimmerman’s On the Exhale, a one-woman show directed with a propulsive narrative drive by Matt Pfeiffer.
What you do
Suli Holum stars as an unnamed woman who arrives without ceremony onstage. With the audience on three sides of set designer Alyssandra Docherty’s low, rectangular dais, Holum lands a deliberate, contemplative gaze at each segment of the audience before launching her story.
Told in the form of an unflinching direct address, as if the audience, “you,” are standing in for the woman herself, the story introduces a college professor with a basement office and nightmares about gun violence that seed her days on campus with increasing paranoia. Male undergrads faced with the fact that “there might be some small disadvantage to being a woman” decry her “appalling vendetta against men.”
It’s best to experience Zimmerman’s surprising and painfully relevant narrative for yourself, so no spoilers here. The woman of On the Exhale takes a journey that pinpoints both the heaviness and absurdities of human responses to trauma.
Letting the script shine
Zimmerman’s script has a literary rhythm that preserves its teller’s vulnerable and provocative voice throughout. Different chapters of the onstage woman’s experience come through in verbal motifs: words like “catalyst,” “choosing,” “grateful,” and “resent” play like notes in the 70-minute monologue. The playwright also forces the listener to grapple with America’s gun obsession by personifying the weapons themselves and their power over us (a gun “looking down imperiously” or “obediently waiting in its holster” with an “obsidian stare”).
From breezy levity (needling the audience with “the worst thing you could do to a well-meaning white liberal,” i.e., not be grateful enough for their kindness) to ironic confessions and barely restrained panic, Holum brings emotional resonance to each twist of the narrative. Pfeiffer’s direction fully inhabits the simple space, drawing the woman from center stage to confide in the audience from afar and up close. Zimmerman’s vivid language and Holum’s articulate performance leave no need for additional physical elements onstage.
Lights, also by Docherty, bring a rich palette to the unadorned stage, moving fluidly from a white, antiseptic glare to dramatic washes of color. Sometimes the light pinions Holum from above, splitting her body’s shadows into spokes that surround her on the floor, like her own fractured self.
Safe space for grief
For the run of this show, Theatre Exile has announced a collaboration with the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia (AVP), featuring post-show talkbacks with AVP leaders for performances on Thursday, December 12, and Wednesday, December 18. Other selected run dates will have an AVP staffer available on-site after the show to discuss audience members’ experiences. Exile hopes this will “allow for theatergoers to gain a deeper understanding of grief and trauma” in a safe space.
Know before you go: On the Exhale contains graphic themes of gun violence and self-harm.
What, When, Where
On the Exhale. By Martín Zimmerman. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer. Through December 22, 2019, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org
Theatre Exile is an ADA-compliant venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
On December 12 and 18, Theatre Exile and the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia will offer post-show talkbacks.