Lorrie (Bree Welch), Ruby (Alice Gatling), and Janelle (Elizabeth Marshall Black) in The Secretary at Main Street Theater.

Ruby is a woman who believes in shooting straight—and after the death of her daughter, she runs a successful gun company whose sales soar each time there is a tragedy. She names her products—The Mallwalker, The Babysitter, and so on—after women who have ostensibly saved lives by defending themselves with firearms. Her latest product, The Secretary, is named after Shirley, a secretary at a public school who brings a gun to school with disastrous consequences. And there you have it: the set up for award-winning playwright Kyle John Schmidt’s dark comedy that takes place in Ruby’s office in a small town in rural America.

Let me say right off the bat that this is a stellar cast. Ruby is played by Alice M. Gatling with verve—and easily maneuvers between the comic line and the serious moment, a tightrope that all of these actresses have to walk in this intense play. The problem is not with Gatling's performance, or any of the performances in this confusing confrontation with America’s gun culture. Ruby believes in guns as protection for women, and her entrepreneurial success has become a dramatically ironic lifeline.

Celeste Roberts also delivers as Shirley, the secretary whose obsession with the kids at school betrays a neuroticism that is understandable in a small town with limited options. Her nervous manner and hilarious mannerisms dovetail perfectly with Macy Lyne’s spot-on costume designs. Never have polyester pants and big glasses and barrettes come together so well to epitomize Shirley’s respectability and meddlesome ways. When she comes clean about what really happened when a troubled student named Dusty is shot at the school, one begins to see why Schmidt doesn’t think anyone should own a gun: It hardly ever goes well, at least in the world of this play.

Office worker Lorrie is related to Brandy (a miscast Briana J. Resa), whose son has been shot at the high school. But Brandy doesn’t seem that broken up about it, seriously undercutting the emotional trajectory of the script. She just wants some kind of payback, but her lack of empathy for her own son’s death is just bizarre. Perhaps this is a signal from the playwright that gun deaths are such a normal part of our culture that we have become numbed to it? Not sure.

Skyler Sinclair as April is a college drop-out getting divorced from her professor husband. The problem is that she is completely against guns and really is sort of a frequent protester, yet, weirdly, she is applying to be a secretary for Ruby’s gun company. Sinclair is a wonderful actress, and as with most of the cast, I love watching her tackle such a bizarre role. But our potential sympathies and empathies with characters reacting to the vicissitudes of America’s love/hate relationship with guns is completely jarred with absurdities like this. I know it is a comedy, but it still has to make sense.

Elizabeth Marshall Black is riveting as the frustrated and nervous Janelle, whose role as Ruby’s office manager is constantly frustrated by the hijinks of Lorrie, hilariously played by Bree Welch. These two are comedy gold, which is really saying something in a play whose dark humor is so black at times that it is almost impossible to laugh. When Janelle hopes for a big tragedy to boost sales for not only the company, but the struggling community, it is almost too much. We laugh nervously, or grimace—but maybe that is the point Schmidt it trying to make.

In any case, with the Santa Fe shootings that happened not so long ago and not so far away from Houston, I wondered why Main Street chose this particular play. The stereotypical rural bumpkin that Lorrie represents is fun to watch, with her overalls and edgy lines and an accent you will never forget. She claims that she is not “stupid,” and of course that is true in a way, and the last scene of the play underscores how we shouldn’t underestimate those who appear lower on the social ladder. There are so many competing trajectories of social critique, it is hard to keep your head from spinning.

Yet there are so many heavy-handed twists of fate, so many coincidences that the script demands of the actors, that I was blown away with how all of them handled such a tricky piece. This is the main thing about The Secretary: You have some of the best actresses in Houston delivering master classes in character acting, negotiating light and dark comedy in a fascinating way. And they are doing it with a subject that is just not funny.

At moments there are traces of theater of the absurd, at others social satire at its best, then moments of straight comedy that work well as we have gotten to know the quirks and ambitions of the characters that come in and out of Ruby’s office. But the overall effect is a play that doesn’t have a clear identity, and while it demands much of the cast and the audience, seems to backfire in that the style of the play upstages the social critique it attempts to employ. I don’t think anyone changes their minds about gun control after this production. But you are certain that Houston has superb actresses that can hit you with their best shot any day of the week.

Thru Feb. 10. Tickets from $39. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.

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