Perhaps the best kind of political play is the one that has no message at all. With One in the Chamber, Marja-Lewis Ryan is not at all interested in making points, picking sides, or influencing your views; she simply wants to observe a corner of the world as it is, and let you take away whatever you like from it.
The issue at hand is gun control and violence, but the story is about the people who live in the reality of guns and what they can do. We meet a family that lost one of their children six years ago, when their elder son Adam (Noah Chiet) accidentally shot his younger brother with one of the family’s firearms. A social worker, Jennifer (Liz Osborn), has come to the house to interview the family members in order to help the state decide whether Adam can be taken off of his parole.
That simple setup is all that Ryan needs – it’s her chance to let us spend time with each of these people, to see how the accidental shooting death of their loved one has affected them and their outlooks. And all we need to see in order to know that these people are not going to be easily put into whatever boxes we might place them comes in the first few minutes, when we learn that the family still owns guns – carefully locked up – and uses them to handle backyard pests at will.
The living room set, designed by Katie Sullivan, brings us right into a living room as familiar as your own. Under Michael R. Piazza’s excellently invisible direction, the actors inhabit this room, and their characters, fully. Adrienne Nelson is the mother, desperately trying to defend herself and her family from emotional fallout and public judgment. Dwight Tolar is the father, aware of how he’s distancing himself from the tragedy, but unable to do anything else about it. Danielle Bourgeois is the teenage daughter, wiser than she appears and unhappy about her own wisdom. Grace Doughty is the 7-year old daughter, who has the same kind of deep but unknowing connection to the tragedy as a child born the day after 9/11.
But note that even those pithy summations of the characters is insufficient; these folks are about as contradictory and complicated as you can get outside of real life. I won’t even attempt to encapsulate Chiet’s or Osborn’s characters.
The few, rare, and tiny moments where the actors or the script overreach and stray into melodrama stand out because of how subtle and natural everything otherwise is; what those moments take away from our absorption, they add to our appreciation of the finely-tuned skill all the artists are contributing.
ONE IN THE CHAMBER
August 8 – September 6
Forum Theatre co-production and Young Playwrights’ Theater
at Mead Theatre Lab
916 G St NW
1 hour, 30 minutes
Thursdays thru Sundays
The collaboration that brought this play to DC is a unique one, involving no less than four companies and nine producers, including Osborn herself, who fell in love with the script after seeing it in L.A. and brought it here with the hopes of playing Jennifer herself. Her passion is reflected in everyone else on the team; everyone clearly believes in this piece of art. Amongst the collaborators is brand-new EMPATHeatre, which aims to “establish a new business paradigm for social discourse through the Arts” by presenting and facilitating new works and public conversation. Accordingly, every performance has some kind of talkback, panel, or discussion session afterwards.
The experience of watching this play is not an easy one; it would not, after all, be easy to spend an afternoon getting to intimately know a family that was still dealing with a difficult event, or wrestling with our own opinions (whatever they may be) about the social ramifications thereon. Definitely a “journey, not the destination”-type experience – especially given the story’s rough, and slightly forced, ending – One in the Chamber makes for a superbly dramatic whetstone on which to sharpen your thoughts and feelings.
One in the Chamber by Marja-Lewis Ryan . Directed by Michael Piazza . Featuring Liz Osborn, Adrienne Nelson, Dwight Tolar,, Noah Chiet, Danielle Bourgeois, and Grace Doughty . Set Design: Kate Sullivan . Stage Manager: Jenn Carlson . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.