Poetic US gun violence monologue becomes dangerously overwrought
I’m not sure how literally you’re supposed to view US playwright Martin Zimmerman’s intense, poetic monologue about American gun violence. To put it bluntly, the story is overwrought to the point of almost being self-defeating. But director Chris Haydon – one of Brit theatre’s great yankophiles – has given its UK premiere a gorgeous production, that finds the poetry in the words. And there’s a spine-tingling performance from Polly Frame as a grieving mother who flies off the rails.
Speaking in the second person throughout, Frame’s nameless female character leads us on a complicated and painful odyssey through the inner workings of her mind. A school teacher, she begins by explaining how an encounter with an angry male pupil led to her becoming increasingly paranoid about the prospect of a mass shooting taking place at her school. Cruelly, she is both right and wrong in her fears – nothing happens at her school, but her primary school aged son Michael’s life is claimed by a bullet at his.
Michael was, to all intents and purposes, her entire world: she has nobody else of importance in her life (he was conceived artificially), and her very existence ruptures without him in it. Rudderless, she gives herself direction by obsessing over the the killing, which takes a dark and unexpected path when she purchases the model of assault rifle used to conduct the massacre.
Taken as a sort of dreamy, poetic metaphor for America’s passionate perma kiss of death with its guns, I think ‘On the Exhale’ works. As an actual story it’s overegged, to the point of not really offering a very believable or sensitive portrait of grief and parental trauma. (I do wonder why Zimmerman felt his protagonist had to be female, and if he’d have depicted male grief in the same OTT light).
But it’s undeniably a very classy production. Haydon directs subtly and sensitively. Frankie Bradshaw’s set of florescent lightstrips, scattered over the floor, is gorgeous, abstractedly suggestive of a ruined classroom, but also lighting up in pretty geometric shapes that morph the shape and feel of the room.
And Frame is great: fanatical and vulnerable and desperately sad, she attacks it with an intensity of belief, a sheer conviction, that for me papered over the cracks at the time, if less so in hindsight.