On The Exhale Perfects The Parental Despair Thriller

Amy Bruce in Rec Room Art's production of On the Exhale
Amy Bruce in Rec Room Art's production of On the Exhale Photo by Tasha Gorel.

It’s a good thing this theater space includes a bar because trust me, you’re going to need a drink following On The Exhale, the one woman/one-hour show now on stage at Rec Room Arts. Not a, gather with friends over a pint and energetically discuss the show kind of drink. But rather, a quiet, worn out,  gut sick belt of something boozy and strong to help soothe the contained rawness of what you just experienced.

I’d love to leave it at that and just let those intrigued by possibility come find out what this show is about. But a critic’s job is to comment and besides, enough of the plot is discussed in the show’s program itself that one can’t exactly be coy about things.

On The Exhale is the outgrowth of playwright, Martin Zimmerman’s anger and despair following the Sandy Hook massacre. A show in which we’re asked to live in the aftermath of a similar type of school shooting alongside the single mother of one of the little boys killed by the gunman. A woman so utterly wrecked that she’s rendered both amazingly functional and yet secretively twisted by her all-encompassing delusional pain.

They say that when an unimaginable tragedy strikes, those affected walk around in a kind of out of body existence and Zimmerman captures this well by allowing the mother (the excellent Amy Bruce) to tell her story to us in second person pronoun. But more importantly, all the “yous” the mother uses in her narrative – you stand outside the school waiting for good news, you stop listening when the sheriff tells you your son didn’t make it, you go to the funeral, you get bombarded by sympathy – eliminates greatly the audience/actor divide and instead forces us to each personalize the story as if it was us navigating the aftershock. As if it was our child that was murdered.

We may not know exactly where the story’s going, but we surrender to the grief/empathy along the way and take our bruises.

Thankfully not in the way that’s expected.

Zimmerman’s script doesn’t fall into the regular tropes of the one-woman grief monologue, nor does it veer into the typical gun violence issue play plot. Not to say that this show doesn’t have a point of view or a distinct side to argue. It’s just that Zimmerman seems content to let the mother’s story speak for itself without lecture, and for that, we're grateful and ultimately far more engaged.

But back to the unexpected – and here is where the employment of curbing is warranted, the less said the better. What must be noted is that everything you imagine to exist in a solo show of this nature isn’t present. There’s no imitation or playing of other characters. Bruce portrays the mother and the mother only, delivering a kind of spoken word poetry that even if overly forced at times (who uses the word Obsidian in conversational parlance?) creates a kind of sorrow song in our ears.

Grand heart-stringy emotional moments are not to be found. Zimmerman could have easily planted a tear-jerking scene and we would have likewise responded. Instead, we get the far more under our skin experience of the unrelenting, mind-warping pull of loss.

Where the narrative experience takes the mother and her relationship to the weapon that was used to kill her child, should be left as a surprise, but it can be described as nothing less than cinematic in its reveal. Our hearts pound, we barely breathe, and if there were pages to turn in a book we would be flipping wildly to learn what happens. It’s exhausting and wrenching and sad and pitiful all at the same time. Right up until Zimmerman gives us and the mother one final bit of relief.

Small comfort, though it may be.

The set similarly does nothing to comfort us. Gone is the usual glorious design we eagerly anticipate from Stefan Azizi. Instead, we’re faced with a propless black stage (save a stool to hold a glass of water), and minimal spotlighting amplifying Bruce’s every facial tic, mood and hand gesture – the latter being the main conductor of her emotion.

That director, Stephanie Wittles Wachs kept the action taut and downplayed on stage, shows both confidence with the material and a desire to let the audience lean into the show rather than be forced into action. The result is utter immersion.

Theater can entertain, it can provoke, it can teach us something. But faced with the amount of gun violence we experience in America today, violence that has mass murdered our children in the places they learn, sometimes we need theater that jolts our feelings awake.

So have that drink. Have two. Breathe. Be quiet and think. And then decide what, if anything, On The Exhale compels you to do.

On The Exhale continues through March 9 at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. For information, visit ASL interpretation will be provided during the February 28 performance.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman