"Don't worry. It's not loaded."
How do you make sense of the unthinkable?
How do you assign blame when there's no one to blame, and everyone's to blame?
How do you forgive the unforgivable?
These are all meaty questions to take on in a play. Jane Martin's "Good Boys" explores the aftermath of a school shooting. Originally produced at the old Guthrie Lab space back in 2002, the play is back again, produced this time by Minnesota Shakes at the Lowry Lab Theater in St. Paul. The five actors involved all grapple admirably with the issues and emotions tackled by the script. Some puzzling directing and production decisions undermine their good work, however.
Two men meet in the park, but not by chance. Thomas Thurman (Eric Wood) has come looking for James Erskine (Bill Gorman). Erskine is the father of Ethan (Nick James) who eight years ago killed several of his fellow high school students, including Thurman's son Marcus (Pedro Juan Fonseca) and then turned the gun on himself. Erskine's downhill slide since then has been precipitous - losing home, job, and family as the lawsuits piled up and the news reporters continued to hound him. He's chasing down his hot dog lunch with a flask of liquor. Thurman and his younger son Corin (Anthony Galloway) have come looking for answers, perhaps forgiveness, perhaps revenge. Memories of the dead boys, and their spirits speaking directly to the audience, weave in and out of the conversation between the two grieving fathers.
Here's the first place the production loses me. The script seems to be crying out to play uninterrupted. The dead boys appearing and disappearing aren't supposed to be distinct separate scenes, divorced from the confrontation between their fathers. The audience is supposed to see the fathers, ever present, whether the parents are watching or not. The past is supposed to mingle with the present onstage because these men can't escape their past. The play keeps cycling back to the notion that wars of words can lead all too quickly to wars with bullets. Having the two planes of reality share the same space is visual reinforcement of one of the play's recurring themes.
Also, once those two men are facing off with one another in the park, they can't leave. It takes all the air out of the confrontation, and the thing has to be rebooted, constantly. It doesn't make any sense that these men would wander off together and come back to the same place, over and over again. The one man clearly doesn't want to have this conversation. If he can make his escape, he will. The other man needs to hold him there. The play needs to hold him there. The places the play most strains credulity are the places where it seems like Erskine could just walk away from Thurman and not look back, and yet he doesn't. The production lands a one-two punch on the script by undermining its strengths and reinforcing its weaknesses. Here, the fathers leave and return, leave and return.
The times when the production doesn't do this, but the past and the present, the fathers and the sons, share the stage together, all work so well, I find it baffling that the strategy of isolation and escape kept happening instead. The production would have been so much more powerful if everyone had just stayed put.
To compound the lessening of tension, two musicians - a keyboardist (Jack Rose and Chris Thompson each working different performances), and a bass player (Ralph Wittcoff) - play jazzy riffs in between scenes. Not only is it letting more unnecessary time pass, but the music is so friendly and relaxing, it flies in the face of the intensity of the play. The musicians do a nice job, but they're completely out of place here.
Also out of place, an act break. This is written as a one-act for a reason. Like the Greek tragedies of old, it's supposed to start and then barrel forward, unrelenting, to its climax. Don't give your audience an opportunity to walk out on you. Yes, the audience did come back the night I was there. But going to an intermission, when you don't need to, right after a kid shoots another kid in the face on stage - when you know, from the set-up of the play, that things aren't going to get better, only worse - I'm not sure whether that makes you a sadist for expecting your audience to come back, or your audience a bunch of masochists, or both. In addition, though, it robs the play of still more tension, and just makes the uphill battle of reeling in the audience for the actors that much harder when they have to restart the confrontation all over again.
The cast members all seem capable of making this thing work. There are moments that are quite powerful in their heartbreaking intensity. The parents trying, and ultimately failing, to save their sons from their worst instincts stand out. But it doesn't seem like anybody got a lot of guidance. This is particularly true of the confrontation between the fathers, which is the backbone of the play.
The script is far from perfect. It has all the advantages and pitfalls of a two-person play, wrapped inside a five-person play. Plus, the deliberate and largely unexplained absence of the mothers from this story is very strange. Every school shooter has a mother somewhere in their life, or they wouldn't be walking around with that gun in their hand. They wouldn't exist at all. The notion of race (Erskine is white, Thomas black) seems to be thrown in at random. It's a problem when the author needs it to be a problem, and recedes to the background when it's convenient. (In a torturous bit of convoluted backstory, it turns out Thurman has a record for armed robbery, but doesn't really have a record for armed robbery. Really? The black guy has to serve time in jail, but only because of an outrageous coincidence? Was any of that necessary? What does it have to do with anything? The father's absence didn't get his kid killed. The kid's attitude and another kid's love of firearms got the kid killed.)
Then there are times in the conversation between the fathers when the script seems to be literally repeating itself. Which is when the actors and director have to dig deeper and find where the difference in tactics lies. How is this moment different than the one that came before? How is this moment leading to the next one? How is each line driving the story toward its conclusion? More importantly, how is this one man keeping the other man from walking out on a conversation they both desperately need to have? What holds the reluctant man there? How are these two things manifested in the words they say, and avoid saying, to one another? There were times it felt like the father characters had only two settings - angry and weeping. That seesaw ride can get old quickly. The fathers can't peak too early or they have nowhere else to go emotionally. For that, I don't blame the actors, I blame the director. All the actors clearly have the ability to hit the highs and lows, which means they can also handle that middle ground. It was the nuances in between that I was often missing.
All that said, there's a lot to recommend this production. The actors, as previously mentioned, dive into this thing with relish. It's a story dealing with the nature of responsibility and the possibility of redemption. Powerful stuff. It could be so much more - both in script and production, but what it is now is not easily dismissed. The troubles this play was built on continue today. This play, and this production, give us a chance to get the issues out in the open, beyond the sensationalistic sound bites of 24-hour news coverage, and spend some time with the human beings whose lives are shaped by these kind of events. It offers us some depth, and maybe some understanding. Even if theater doesn't always hit the mark it's aiming for, we're almost always better for it having tried. There is no wasted effort. Only more to do.
"Good Boys" from Minnesota Shakes runs through the Labor Day weekend - Friday and Saturday, 7:30; Sunday and Monday, 6:30. Tickets are $20, with the final performance on Monday, September 7, 2009 being a Pay-What-You-Can night. Reservations, call 651-786-9102 or email to email@example.com. The Lowry Lab Theater is located at 360 St. Peter Street in St. Paul. (Warning - There are several loud gunshots throughout the evening (beginning, middle and end), and it's a black box space, so it's close to the audience. Though this one's shooting blanks, it's good to be reminded every now and again just why we should be scared of real guns in the wrong hands.) More information at minnesotashakes.blogspot.com