In a polarized nation, talking about gun violence is tough. Stage West presents two plays, Church & State by Jason Odell Williams and On the Exhale by Martin Zimmerman, to explore the nuanced humanity behind the hot button issue. The shows are running concurrently at the Fort Worth theater with Church & State running through February 20 and On the Exhale running through February 27.
“It is an exploration of a different reaction to a similar event,” said Jenna Burnett, the director of Church & State. “I feel like the way they go together is exploring what an event like this does to a person, and when it is close to them, how it challenges their closely held beliefs.”
Church & State was originally scheduled for May 2020 and On the Exhale was to be presented in the summer of 2021. These two shows being performed at the same time is a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic and Stage West’s extensive renovation. “Why don’t we go ahead and explore this topic? We’ve got two theaters. Why don’t we try this and see what happens?” said Dana Schultes, Stage West’s Executive Producer.
Fictional North Carolina Senator Charles Whitmore is at the center of Church & State. During a tough re-election campaign, the well-liked senator makes an off-the-cuff remark after a funeral for two school shooting victims, sending his campaign into crisis mode.
Presented in Stage West’s Jerry Russell Theatre, the show is described as a dramedy, a combination of drama and comedy. “The anchoring event of the show is so heavy, and this is about people dealing with it, trying to see if there’s anything they can do to make sure this kind of stuff doesn’t happen again. So, without an infusion of hope, it would just be a leaden, terrible, awful evening,” said Ashley Wood, who plays the senator.
Comedy is how the characters relate to each other. “The comedy comes from how much these people love each other. They trust each other,” Burnett said. “It just naturally comes out of their relationship.”
Williams treats the subjects of faith, politics, and guns with respect. “There are no real villains in this play, except the person who committed the crime. It allows us to really consider options and to really consider the reality of the situation rather than an abstract concept of good and bad,” Burnett said.
The show focuses on the gray area between red and blue. “I think it honestly explores the space between polarization,” Wood said.
The controversy results in a crisis of faith for Whitmore. “There are things he has always taken for granted that have major cracks,” Wood said. “And then tectonic plates just start shifting and we have no idea where there are going to settle or if they are going to settle.”
The challenge of playing Whitmore is navigating this evolution. “He’s walking on the slipperiest ice, and he’s fallen down every time he puts his foot down. ‘Can I stand on this? I don’t know if I can stand on this.’ That’s constantly happening to him. It’s really fun and it’s really terrifying to portray that,” Wood said.
Wood can relate to Whitmore and his devotion to his faith. “If he were sitting in front of me, I would want to encourage him,” Wood said. “There’s a difference between learning facts and words and having things explode in your heart and usually only when we’re desperate do things explode in our heart.”
The show has given Burnett a fuller perspective of gun culture in America. “It’s a very convoluted and fascinating history. It’s just so complicate and it’s become so abstract,’ Burnett said. “It is in many ways a symptom of even larger issues like race and poverty and the mental health crisis in the United States.”
In Stage West’s new Evelyn Wheeler Swenson Theatre, Schultes prepares for On the Exhale, her first one-person show. “The idea of doing a one-person show has always been rather frightening to me, and I kinda said I would never do it, to be honest,” Schultes said. “I put this script down as soon as I finished it in one sitting and said, ‘This is a show that I could do. I could happily tell this story.’”
The show is inspired by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Alone on a stage, Schultes plays a college professor whose life has been transformed by gun violence. “I think because I’m so passionate about the story, I find it so interesting and riveting, I love the character and all of her contradictions that it makes it easy because I know what the story is and I’m eager to share it, I can’t wait to have an audience,” Schultes said.
Rather than have Schultes perform to empty chairs during rehearsal, the show’s director, Harry B. Parker, brought in photos of 30 celebrities and scattered the pictures throughout the audience. “I’ve got Meryl Streep and Kerry Washington and Robert DeNiro and Chita Rivera. They’re all watching me every night,” Schultes said. “Sandra Oh is an amazing audience member.”
As Schultes’ character tries to comprehend the violence that has upended her life, she becomes obsessed with the weapon used in the crime. “It becomes this conduit,” Schultes said. “The force of it, the power of it, as she says, in the character’s words, it becomes electric.”
This new-found fascination with a gun is an expression of grief. “I would say this show is primarily about grief coupled with it being a ghost story,” Schultes said. “Yes, thematically guns do play into it and thematically there is some gun violence that we learn about, but as far as this woman’s journey is concerned, it’s really largely a ghost story and a journey trying to figure out how to handle grief, how to find closure.”
On the Exhale reflects the complexity of loss. “Grief is just a process that we have to get through,” Schultes said. “There is no way around it but to go through it and figure out what your through line of that grief is to get to the other side of it and to get to acceptance and peace.”
Learn more: https://stagewest.org