by John Stoltenberg
Theater Alliance’s The Events, now playing at Anacostia Playhouse, is one of several plays this season that deal with a mass shooting. (There’s also Pinky Swear’s Blight, coming October 20 to the same theater. And there’s another now on the boards that is keeping its pivotal shooting incident under wraps.)
This trending topic is likely to show up on American stages more and more, given the frequency with which that horrific instance of gun violence has taken its unrelenting toll in lives lost and residual pain. Mass shootings have become a national nightmare that we cannot wake up from—and theater makers, like ancient dream interpreters, are stepping up to make sense of the senseless.
Against this background of vulnerability and trauma, The Events takes the point of view of a survivor of a mass shooting and reframes it in memory as a mesmerizing alternate reality. We watch as the survivor, Claire (a luminous Regina Aquino), becomes the dreamer of a different dream, proactively imagining a promise of hope and healing through compassion and forgiveness, for herself and, vicariously, for us. The result is a spellbinding theatrical experience that stays in the heart and mind like a saving revelation.
Originally the Scottish playwright David Grieg wrote The Events on commission from a theater in Norway. Theater Alliance happened upon it, picked it to kick off Producing Artistic Director Colin Hovde’s final season, and tweaked the text to Americanize it. Strangely, the play feels not foreign at all; it seems written here about what keeps happening here. In fact, the outline of its narrative is painfully too familiar.
As exquisitely directed by Hovde, the production takes place nowhere and in Claire’s mind. The surf of some sea roars in Thomas Sowers’s sound design, like some chatter-blocking white noise. In Giorgos Tsappas’s scenic design, abstract all-gray mottled walls surround a dreamscape with no discernible specificity. Except there is an upright piano and a heap of yellow folding chairs.
Those sparse particulars are important because Claire is the conductor of a choir, whom we meet at the very beginning as their twelve gorgeously matched voices sing out “Stand by Me.” (The praiseworthy ensemble consists of Moses Bossenbroek, Tess Higgins, Drew Frederick Holcombe, Rachel Hines, Karen Lange, Lee Liebeskind, Jane Petkofsky, Sisi Reid, and Alex Turner.)
As we soon learn in chilling detail, however, one day a lone gunman dropped in on choir practice then shot everyone except Claire. This means the sentient choir members we see and hear singing clearly exist in Claire’s memory and imagination only. In the real world, they are dead.
Besides Claire, there is one other living character in The Events: The Boy, the shooter. He exists as a projection in Claire’s imagination too, but as the story that she tells unfolds, he is very much alive. And somehow she must emotionally reckon with him and with what he did—the very soul-wrenching quandary that more and more are in.
“I don’t want to understand what happened to me, I know what happened to me. I want to understand what happened to him,” Claire says early on. And over the course of the play, Claire stitches together the story of what happened and picks up piece after piece of the puzzle about why.
The choir returns to sing pop songs and hymns. And the nameless Boy appears as various figures in Claire’s cognition: his own father, a journalist, a psychologist, a politician, the woman with whom Claire lives and loves, and others. Josh Adams plays them all with such protean subtlety that we meet each not as a simple impersonation but as a sympatico reflection imagined by Claire.
The Boy’s story is told in fragments, each a clue to why he did what he did, and the play’s proffered reasons are familiar as well: a boyhood spent teased and bullied become a young manhood consumed by rage against others, and so forth. Though the main character of the play is seeking to understand The Boy—and though both Adams’s and Aquino’s performances are powerful and poignant—the play itself never actually explains him, which I take to be its point. Because just as in all the accumulated shootings we see on TV, the shooter himself remains an enigma.
Instead, it is Claire whom we get to know. She is who connects us to what happened. She is who stands in for us. She is who finds the capacity for compassion despite incomprehension, perhaps the greatest challenge our species now faces.
Ultimately the way the play draws us into Claire’s world, letting us see it through her eyes, becomes by the end an extraordinarily transformative event. Make that plural—transformative events—because as the play takes place on stage it happens in each audience member’s own heart and mind. And it is there, as Claire shows us, where the healing release many seek can be found.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.