Amy Bruce is a superb actress who plays a college professor in Martín Zimmerman’s On the Exhale, a memorable and moving one-woman show. Bruce—who gave an unforgettable performance as a woman who wants to be a lion in Catastrophic's Leap and the Net Will Appear—starts off with what might be a rant. She complains about a male student who doesn’t appreciate her women’s studies class. He claims it is “insidious propaganda” that acts as a “vendetta” against men.
You think that this is all about how civilization is going to pieces and how she can’t get her students “woke” fast enough—but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The professor explains this situation, and what it sparks for her, kaleidoscopically: one minute sarcastic, one minute humorous, the next fearful and seemingly paranoid. Things plunge from professional and parental complaints to deadly serious anger—a pronounced pattern in this provocative play, and one that dramatizes how all these things can be connected, possibly even turning on a dime.
The monologue pivots once she see this male student carrying a weapon on campus, and Bruce is suddenly on staring down the barrel of gun control. Seeing the “obsidian stare” of the student’s firearm whips up her anxiety. She strategically places a mirror in her campus office, so she can see students approaching her from the hall. She moves her desk closer to the door in case she must make a run for it. She resents the inane emblems of guns crossed out by a red circle that punctuate our buildings in an era of mass shootings. What do those little stickers really do anyway?
This 60-minute, one-act play quickly turns into something much deeper and disturbing. Bruce, as I said, is funny at first—about student demands, office hours, the academia gig. What can I say? She has great comedic timing. But even more impressive is her hurt and grief, especially after the moment she knows “There’s a shooter,” and it is not at her university.
Every time you think you know where this play is heading, you are faced with a shocking turn—several times. Playwright Martín Zimmerman deftly includes so many facets of this woman’s life in an hour, it is nothing short of astonishing. Her shocks are experienced by the audience, and I am sure my mouth was hanging open at several points. In addition, Bruce uses second person, as in “you lock your office door,” or, “you are judged by your therapist.” You think you are experiencing things along with Bruce’s character (and in a way, you are). But by the end of the play you realize that this is a retrospective: all the things that she has felt, before, during, and after the loss of her second-grader, Michael, in a school shooting.
Woven into the monologue are social situations that may or may not feed into our cultural vulnerability to violence: single parenthood and its lingering stigmas, feigned support from “white liberals,” and the bewildering ease of purchasing a gun in America. These issues create a context for how the professor has worked hard and been devoted as a mother. Her grief is moving and palpable from the moment she hears of her son’s death to the very last moment of the play.
On the Exhale emphasizes the “casual indifference” of the world to children being shot in school—all things that point out that numbness and inaction seem to be the dominant response to gun violence. Life is hard, Zimmerman suggests, but his exploration of how the public responds to extreme violence with “radical detachment” is deeply depressing because it rings true. The play seems to ask, if our best coping skills with gun violence are indifference and detachment, how can this issue ever be addressed?
Under the excellent direction of Stephanie Wittels Wachs (who is also the executive director and cofounder of Rec Room Arts), the audience experiences a wrenching journey through a mother’s loss, with a minimalist set that allows Amy Bruce to shine—not only in her range of emotions, but her physical aplomb in expressing every shade of wry humor, disbelief, and despair.
This play has a particular point of view concerning this important issue, but its arsenal of suggested solutions steers away from statistics, legal arguments, and even the political spectrum. Instead, this play reminds us that the political always stems from the personal, if only our minds would connect the two. Perhaps we must stop shutting down whenever a tragedy involves someone else, in another town, or even our families, who might be “a universe away.”
Thru March 9. Tickets $30. Rec Room, 100 Jackson St. 713-344-1291. More info and tickets at recroomarts.org.