Theater Review: “Trigger Warning” — Not Quite Explosive

By Erik Nikander

As Zeitgeist Stage Company closes its doors, it’s hard not to wonder, with some bitterness, what our plucky local small-scale theater troupes would be able to accomplish if they had the resources they need.

Trigger Warning by Jacques Lamarre. Directed by David J.Miller. Staged by the Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, through May 4.

Kelley Estes & Lilly Brenneman in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s staging of “Trigger Warning.” Photo: David Miller.

Any play that examines the persistence of mass shootings in the USA will grapple with plenty of meaty questions. Would stricter gun control be an effective solution? Is the lack of readily available mental health care the true culprit? Do we need to arm ourselves to the teeth in order to prevent gun violence, or would that only result in more blood being spilled? Trigger Warning, a new play by Jacques Lamarre, is the closing show (a world premiere) of Zeitgeist Stage Company’s final season. To the company’s credit, it has chosen to end its 18-year run with a bold and ambitious production. That said, despite a few electric scenes and insightful moments, Trigger Warning is hampered by a tendency toward lackluster social commentary and clumsy storytelling choices.

Jackie (Liz Adams) and Murph (Steve Auger) are given about the worst news parents could imagine: the school their children attend has been attacked by a mass shooter. Then Jackie is sent the shooter’s disturbing video manifesto by her sister Amy (Kelley Estes) and is hit with the full horror of the situation: her troubled son, Travis, is the one who murdered his classmates. He also shoots and wounds his sister Meghan (Lilly Brenneman) before killing himself. As the family is guided through the hellish aftermath by their lawyer Connie Bates (Holly Newman), they’re forced to reckon with their new status as community pariahs, as well as new internal tensions that threaten to split them apart.

The situation created by the play’s first scenes is a compelling one. How does an ordinary family cope when every part of their reality is changed forever in an instant? But for the trauma to feel real the audience has to believe in the script’s characters, and from the very start Trigger Warning has a difficult time establishing its central figures. In the very first scene, Jackie is juggling phone calls, trying to find out if her kids are safe and to make sure Murph knows what’s going on. Rather than overcome with fear or panic, though, Adams comes off as impatient, even annoyed. The crushing weight of the catastrophe and the character’s behavior don’t quite mesh.

The play eventually hits its stride, but it takes its time. The first several scenes are burdened with clumsy exposition,  introducing us to characters that are not far removed from cliche. Murph, in particular, ticks off just about all the right-wing stereotype boxes: he’s a blue-collar, rough-around-the edges construction worker with an arsenal of firearms downstairs — and a side job as an NRA gun safety instructor. There are Murphs out there, no doubt, but Lamarre doesn’t challenge (or complicate) this character beyond the realm of caricature. Steve Auger plays Murph with heart and vulnerability, especially when expressing his grief over Travis’s suicide and his inability to help the boy before he was too far gone. But the character is not given enough substance for the actor to work with.

Kelley Estes & Lilly Brenneman in “Trigger Warning.” Photo: David Miller

It isn’t until Meghan returns from the hospital that the play finds its groove. An engaging family drama develops among Meghan, Murph, Jackie, and Amy; the conflicts unfold over the second half of the play, culminating in a confrontation between mother and daughter that is both moving and truthful. Brenneman’s performance as Meghan comes off as slightly hesitant and uncertain — but these qualities emphasize her character’s wounded emotional state, so it becomes  memorably thrilling once Meghan finds her voice. David J. Miller directs these moments, as well as a heartbreaking conversation between Jackie and local reverend (Naeemah A. White-Peppers), with a graceful touch. His restraint here makes the earlier scenes puzzling and frustrating in retrospect, since the director relies heavily on tiresome shouting matches to ramp up the tension.

While the script eventually becomes a compelling family drama (until the ending, which feels hasty and contrived), Trigger Warning falls short as a social critique. Requisite talking points from both sides are raised, sometimes through characters’ stated opinions, sometimes by way of projected video elements by Michael Flowers, who also designed the set. The play effectively rehashes the arguments American liberals and conservatives have made on the subject over and over again. But the drama doesn’t provide a distinctive polemical take on the topic. Is it unrealistic to expect a script to settle a question that has stymied the country for decades? Of course. But it is expected that a playwright today will assert a strong point of view, or at least go beyond the bromides of Fox News and CNN. Lamarre doesn’t challenge his characters’ respective worldviews, so none of the text’s ideological ping-ponging leaves a lasting sting.

Above all, Trigger Warning‘s biggest problem is that ZSC hasn’t fully developed the script. Right now it feels a draft or two shy of being ready for full production; many scenes need trimming, and a lawyer character feels mostly superfluous. Still, even if the staging doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions, the ZSC team deserves a great deal of credit for using theater to take on weighty social problems. As Zeitgeist Stage Company closes its doors, it’s hard not to wonder, with some bitterness, what the plucky theater makers at our local small-scale companies would be able to accomplish if they had the resources they need. After all, artists have to eat, too. If Boston isn’t willing to feed them, we shouldn’t be surprised when the art suffers. And the troupes fade away.

Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.

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