Playwright Jennifer Barclay has created the perfect vehicle for generating a discussion about safety in our communities.
Ripe Frenzy by Jennifer Barclay. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Production design by Jared Mezzocchi. Scenic design by Afsoon Pajoufar. Costume design by Annalynn Luu. Lighting design by David Orlando. Sound design by David Reiffel. Co-produced by Boston Center for American Performance and New Repertory Theatre as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Performing at Boston University College of Fine Arts Studio One, Boston, MA, through March 11.
By David Greenham
“I have no patience for ugliness,” Zoe (Veronika Duerr) tells us very early on in Ripe Frenzy, “I prefer to see the beauty in life.” Zoe is walking about the disheveled auditorium at Tavistown High School which, we learn, is about to be demolished. Dramatist Jennifer Barclay’s devastating and eye-opening new play forces us to examine both the ugliness and beauty in 21st century American schools.
Set in a fictional Hudson valley community, the Tavistown High School drama program had been best known as the Guinness Book of World Records holder for presenting the most productions of Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 chestnut is an apt metaphor for our nostalgia for simpler time when, perhaps (I suppose) America was ‘great,’ at least for information-starved white students. Of course, they didn’t have assault rifles in Grover’s Corners.
In the exposition-filled monologue that opens the show, Zoe shares stories of the glory days of the school’s Our Town productions, reveling in past theatrical highlights while intimating that, more recently, something has gone terribly wrong. She proudly announces the school’s Our Town record at 40 productions – well, 39 and three quarters. Ripe Frenzy is a play that begins in 2017 but, after that, as the program informs us, “time is slippery here.”
Zoe is joined by her two closest friends, Miriam (Stacy Fischer), who is directing the school production and Felicia (Samantha Richert), a surgeon whose son, Matt (Henry B. Gardner), has been cast in the role of George. They reminisce about their senior year, when they took part in the production. Miriam played Emily back then, and Zoe took on the role of the Stage Manager, which was a coup given the Tavistown tradition — the role was usually played by a male. During the 40th production, Miriam’s headstrong daughter Hadley (Reilly Anspaugh) has been cast as Emily. Zoe’s son is unseen, but he is very much a presence in the drama. He has designed the set and the video component for the production.
As Our Town enters tech, the characters hear via their cell phones of a school shooting in Michigan, where 19 have died. The reaction of the characters is, unfortunately, a scene that we’ve become all too familiar with, most recently in Parkland, Florida.
Playwright Barclay, assisted by director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary and the talented New Rep cast, has created the perfect vehicle to generate a discussion about safety in our communities and the heartbreak that’s left behind when preventable tragedy hits. Ripe Frenzy is ominous and heartbreaking, but it also has some humor and, thanks to Zoe’s unrelenting efforts, reminders that history, pride, hope and love can be excavated from the rubble of horror.
As Zoe, Veronika Duerr is fierce and unrelenting. She carries the play, both as concerned narrator and an expression of our emotional ache. Fischer and Richert bring context and comedy to their roles. The three “moms” share a warm comradery and familiarity. Their kids, Hadley and Matt (Anspaugh and Gardner), are quietly sweet and subtle. Their brief moments together strike the perfect balance of innocence and promise that makes the catastrophe on its way grip us in a more personal way.
Playwright Barclay could have stopped with those characters and the drama would have been compelling. But she creates more richness with two additional characters: Gardner brings the hubristic young Michigan shooter, Brian James McNamara, to the stage with a vengeance. His fierce moment of defiance, standing center stage with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, is terrifying. “You really think you’re that different from me?” he shouts. For me, the script’s most mysterious figure character is Anspaugh’s Bethany, a quiet, bookish classmate of Hadley and Zoe’s son. Although we only meet her a few times, Anspaugh crafts an interesting young woman with tantalizing secrets and a distinctive kind of pain.
And kudos to young actors Anspaugh and Gardner for creating two wildly different personalities, so much so that it’s a surprise when the cast of five enters to take a bow, considering there are seven very solid and well-formed characters in the play.
Jared Mezzocchi’s striking video projections are crucial part of the development process of this production. His visuals become a character in the drama. The projections are the creation of Zoe’s unnamed son, the designer of the final (and doomed) Tavistown Our Town. Part abstract and part starkly real, the videoscape invites us to imaginatively fill in the visual blanks.
Afsoon Pajoufar’s set, with its graphic design map of Grover’s Corners and its intricate cardboard sculptures of buildings, catches the artificiality and fragility of our view of small town life. The costumes of Annalynn Luu, lighting of David Orlando, and sound of David Reiffel create a believably full world in a black box space.
Ripe Frenzy isn’t a script about gun control. Neither is it about trying to understand the perpetrators of school shootings. Rather, it’s about the experience of those who are left once the hellish smoke clears. In this case, the mothers, and a quiet and broken student. The mainstream news media and the masses go on to the next shiny disaster; these are the people who are tasked with picking themselves up and somehow trudging on. With school shootings, the pattern has become all too depressingly clear. We are shocked and outraged, concerned and sympathetic, pledging our ‘thoughts and prayers.’ But we let our policy makers do nothing.
Perhaps this time the young people are going to succeed in rising up and telling the adults that they’ve had enough — that they are fighting for their lives. That’s the note of hope struck by the character of Hadley. “Positivity is a choice I make” Zoe declares at one point. But, by the end, Zoe is traumatized and inert. Optimism is admirable but, if we really want to reclaim peace and end violence in America’s “our towns,” it’s time to take action.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.