Gun Ownership Gets The Dark Humor Treatment In The Secretary [UPDATED]

Bree Welch and Celeste Roberts in The Secretary at Main Street Theater
Bree Welch and Celeste Roberts in The Secretary at Main Street Theater Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photography
Update: Main Street Theater has extended the run of The Secretary through February 16.

In times of political and social turmoil, many believe it’s an artist’s duty to react to and address the causes of our discontent. If true, a playwright has three methods of attacking this challenge. He/she can create a provocatively serious or disturbing work about the issues, asking the hard questions and forcing audiences to think deeply about the situation they find themselves in.

That's downer theater, says another school of thought which believes that dark times require not a dramatization of how dreadful everything is, but rather an escapist form of storytelling. One that helps us to remember our humanness, our goodness, and provides hope/pleasure in difficult times.

Then there's the dark humor approach. A way to deal with crappy current events by allowing us to laugh at the disturbance whilst slyly being slipped biting point after biting point on the subject. This is the tactic Kyle John Schmidt uses when tackling America's gun ownership in his mostly successful new play, The Secretary, now on stage (for its second-ever production) at Main Street Theater.

The all-female character show tells the story of an American gun manufacturer who's rise to prominence in a small town is the result of the unusual names of the automatic weapons it makes. The Lone Widow, The Bridesmaid, The Mall Walker, all weapons named for women who used guns to defend themselves in dire circumstances. Never mind if the stories aren't true, says the company owner Ruby (Alice M. Gatling giving terrific no-nonsense vibes), it's the evocation and inspiration she's after. Tough on the outside but big-hearted and caring to the core, all Ruby wants is for women to feel safe, to be safe. Safe from being raped and abused and all other manners of violence she knows befall women every day. And according to her, guns are the answer.

So when Ruby gets word that a secretary at a local school used her own gun (one she wasn't supposed to have at work) to stop a school shooter, Ruby knows she has the name of her new product – The Secretary. But like all the other stories behind Ruby's arsenal, the school shooting scenario didn't quite go down the way everyone thinks it did. Shirley, the grandma-like secretary (Celeste Roberts showing that tightly wound has subtle edges) tries to talk Ruby out of the whole enterprise. She even confesses what really happened. But rather than stick to her moral guns, something else happens. Shirley instead, out of fear for her life, wants to stick to guns for real.

And that’s a problem. Because increasingly everyone in town comes to believe that as a weapon, The Secretary has a mind of its own. How else do you explain why it just keeps ‘going off' and destroying everything from a Xerox machine to human life. It's a clever thing Schmidt does here, turning the loudly shouted NRA mantra about guns not killing people over on its behind. In his play, people don't kill people, guns do. It's what almost everyone in the play, save Ruby, believes. Or at least it's what they've convinced themselves of.

Not that any of the characters Schmidt peppers his play with are all that bright. But smarts isn’t what makes this dark comedy hum; quirk is. Take April for example (Skyler Sinclair) a college dropout who applies for a job at the gun company with a resume that includes a list of her moral oppositions, guns and profit being two of them.

Then there is Brandy (Briana J. Resa) the mother of the boy shot at school, who gets over the death as fast as she can put her hand out for compensation, including wanting the school to name the football field (her son hated football) in his name.

However Schmidt reserves the truly funny for Ruby’s feuding employees, office manager Janelle (a hysterically ditsy and aggrieved Elizabeth Marshall Black) and the farmhouse-rough-around-more-than-the-edges office secretary, Lorrie (scene-stealing Bree Welch sauntering around in a plaid shirt, overalls, a country rats nest of a hairdo and an octave deep accusatory twangy voice so absurd you can’t help but laugh). But Schmidt isn’t content to simply let these women be comic relief. “We’re all praying at my church for a big event….with lots of causalities”, says Janelle, hoping that this will buoy business. Perhaps one of the darkest lines in the show, but also the most clever, like hiding our medicine in a spoonful of sugar.

“We’re filled to the brim with bees and honey”, says Lorrie. “And when you kick the nest, you don’t know what’s gonna come out.” It takes a minute to get past the simultaneously creepy yet humorous delivery of the line to really understand what she’s saying. After all, Lorrie is the one whose Secretary ‘goes off' first, coincidentally timed to yet another office squabble with Janelle.

Had Schmidt stuck more closely to this kind narrative gymnastics, The Secretary could have truly impressed with its send-ups and comical commentary. The more The Secretary 'goes off', the more it sells. You can't get any more wonderfully subversive than that.  Unfortunately, he often overstuffs the narrative with unnecessary and grim backstories. Some characters were abused by a parent, other's lost their children to suicide, there's wife beating and abandonment and unplanned pregnancies and it's all just a lot of too much.

Director Julia Traber tries to move past these moments quickly, allowing her cast to find the funny again as quickly as possible, but the heaviness is there, breaking the flow of this one-act play. Also changing the flow is the turntable stage that sits in the middle of the in the round configuration. It's a nice enough touch to have the sparse office set (Ryan McGettigan) spin to change angles each scene. However, the final, meant to be tension-filled moment, is utterly undone by the kvetching groan of the slow spin of the stage. It was the one case where we laughed and we wished we didn't have to.

Finally, a word about Schmidt’s intention for the show – one he claims was meant to challenge people from both sides of the gun ownership debate, to be an equal opportunity finger poker. It’s a valiant idea, but one that Schmidt doesn’t quite pull off. The Secretary certainly shows the audience how dangerous and at times silly gun ownership is. And Schmidt does throw all manners potential/realized abuse in our faces as the pro-gun argument – but it just doesn’t feel like the play is batting equally for the teams.

Not when the best zingers/social commentary lines/just plain funny situations illustrate how ridiculous and harmful gun ownership can be. But then perhaps what you best like about the arguments depends on what view you walk into the show with. After all, even with social issue dark comedy, a playwright can't make us empty our belief bagged before entering the show. All he/she can do, hopefully, is say something to us.

Update: Two additional performances of The Secretary have been scheduled for February 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m.
The Secretary continues through February 10 16 at Main Street Theater- Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $36-$48.
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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