By Helen Epstein
On the Exhale is one of the most powerful and uncompromising one-person shows I’ve ever seen.
On the Exhale by Martín Zimmerman. Directed by Colette Robert. Staged by the Chester Theatre Company in Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester MA, through August 4.
Writing in the second person, and mostly in the present tense, is an extremely difficult and risky narrative strategy for novelists and an riskier one for a playwright creating a one-person show. It’s far more than a colloquial choice; it insists that the audience identify with the narrator and becomes immersed in her story. At the same time, the strategy serves as a potent real-life psychological defense, as well as a theatrical way for a narrator to implicate, even indict, her audience. The challenge is to keep the identification strong from start to finish and, as the story becomes unpredictable and increasingly painful, to keep the listener empathetic with the narrator: so that he or she will not distance themselves and say, “No, this is not me.”
On the Exhale, one of the most powerful and uncompromising one-person shows I’ve ever seen, begins with the barely audible soundtrack of slow, regular breathing in the dark. The lights come up on a casually-dressed woman standing close to the lip of the stage, silently surveying her audience.
The abstract single set does not suggest a specific place. Vertical off-white blinds line the three sides of the stage; a massive frame of concrete hangs from the ceiling; and a band of off-white concrete wraps around the only prop: a black leather and chrome bench. The lighting suggest by colorization any number of places: her bedroom, her basement office, her therapist’s consulting room, a neighborhood potluck, her son’s elementary school, a funeral home, a statehouse hearing room, a bar, the inside of her mind.
The young, prolific, and award-winning playwright Martin Zimmerman, has written an unusual female character who, unlike so many protagonists in one-person shows, makes little attempt to ingratiate herself. This “Woman” is a an up-by-her-own- bootstraps professor from a family and social background where, she says, no one shared her interests or encouraged her to become what she became: a college professor. She teaches Women’s Studies, and is the single mother of a second-grader whom she conceived with a sperm donor. She is not what would be considered a sympathetic “relatable” female character: she is a loner, not big on neighborhood potlucks or picnics, and discourages intimacy as well as other parents’ attempts to fix her up with a male or female potential partner.
Her opening monologue, delivered straight to the audience, turns out to be an anxiety dream: “You always imagine it happens to you…always a young male…entitlement mixes with adrenalin, fear, testosterone…you raise your hands…this is the way you save your life…maybe you’re right…maybe we can take another look at your final grade…after a few semesters, he graduates and the dreams occur less frequently.”
Zimmerman, a graduate of Duke and the University of Texas, is familiar with “concealed carry,” the practice of carrying a handgun or other weapon on one’s body — even to a professor’s office hours in the deserted basement of her college — and he describes its consequences on the protagonist’s psyche.
The Woman is embarrassed and ashamed to admit – as she has to her therapist – that she is (“You are”) afraid of being shot by one of her (“your”) disgruntled students. She’s uncomfortable admitting any fear, vulnerability, or anxiety — she assumes her therapist is judging her. This feeling is so strong that when she hears “there’s a shooter at the school,” she (you) doesn’t at first grasp the fact that “it’s at your school – not the elementary school.”
Tara Franklin, whom I last saw play a very different kind of woman — the smug East Side publisher’s wife in Edward Albee’s At the Zoo at Berkshire Theatre Group two summers ago (Arts Fuse review) is spectacular in this formidable role, which is not only mentally and physically rigorous, but grapples with a wide range of situations and emotions. Ably directed by Colette Robert, her collaborator in this (no doubt) arduous production, Franklin is an extraordinary presence who commands every inch of the stage. Her performance is a tour de force as she moved through this wild, angry, grief-filled, unpredictable, surreal, yet ultimately plausible script.
The accomplished director and her design team, set designer Travis George, lighting designer Lara Dubin, and sound designer James McNamara, create a haunting exterior and interior world in this production, and it leaves an indelible imprint. We have listened to the news and read about the parents of children in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Parkland — and try not to imagine that they could be us. On the Exhale allows us to take in, via Zimmerman’s act of imagination, art, and skill, and Franklin’s virtuoso performance, the depth and range of their loss, to have an idea of how it may feel to be one of them.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and Children of the Holocaust. She has been reviewing theater for the Arts Fuse since 2010.