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Confronting the unthinkable: Haunting play “On the Exhale” examines gun violence

  • Elizabeth Solomon rehearses for “On the Exhale,” a one-woman play about a mother dealing with gun violence. The staged reading, directed by Sheryl Stoodley of Serious Play, takes place Sunday and Monday at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Solomon rehearses for “On the Exhale,” a one-woman play about a woman dealing with gun violence. The staged reading, directed by Sheryl Stoodley of Serious Play, takes place Sunday and Monday at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Solomon says “On the Exhale” resonated with her in part because the unnamed woman in the play is a single mom with a young son, just as she is a single mom to a young daughter. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Solomon says “On the Exhale” resonated with her in part because the unnamed woman in the play is a single mom with a young son, just as she is a single mom to a young daughter. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sheryl Stoodley, director of the Valley theater company Serious Play, discovered the script of “On the Exhale” last summer. “It’s really an example of the power of words to tell a moving and gripping story,” she says. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sheryl Stoodley, director of the Valley theater company Serious Play, discovered the script of “On the Exhale” last summer. “It’s really an example of the power of words to tell a moving and gripping story,” she says. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Students are evacuated by police from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.  Photo by Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS

  • David Hogg, center, a survivor of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. in Feb. 2018, speaks at a gun-control rally in Aug. 2018 near the headquarters of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson in Springfield. AP Photo/Steven Senne

  • High school students rally near Springfield gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson in Aug. 2018 after a 50-mile march calling for gun law reform. AP Photo/Steve Senne



Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2019

It can’t happen here, can it? It can’t happen to me or the people I know and love, right?

Can it?

Those questions have become all too common as violent shootings continue unabated across the United States and seemingly safe communities, workplaces and schools become the next news headline — or the next TV image of flashing emergency lights, of grieving family and friends, of shocked survivors escorted by police from a school/store/church/fill-in-the-blank.

The question of “Can it happen here?” is also at the heart of “On the Exhale,” a stark and moving play about one woman’s reaction to the unthinkable: Her young son, who’s so excited to be going into second grade, has been killed by a man who shoots up an elementary school before taking his own life.

“On the Exhale,” written by young American playwright Martin Zimmerman, had its world premiere at the Roundabout Theater in New York City in early 2017, with an acclaimed performance by the stage and film actress Marin Ireland. A staged reading of the one-woman play, produced by the Valley theater group Serious Play, now comes to this area Sunday and Monday at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton.

“On the Exhale” is an exploration of the unnamed woman’s journey through a full cycle of fear, grief, loss, anger and a determination to exact revenge. It’s also a story that looks at the larger fascination with guns in America, as the character goes from fearing guns to embracing them — or embracing the sense of power and control she feels when she gets one and learns how to shoot it. 

“It’s just such a well-written play,” said Sheryl Stoodley, the founder and director of Serious Play, who is directing a former member of her troupe, Elizabeth Solomon, in the performance. “It’s really an example of the power of words to tell a moving and gripping story.”

Solomon, who first got involved in Serious Play as a Northampton High School student in the late 1990s, agrees. “I really feel honored to read this work. It feels like there’s not a wrong word choice in it … it touches so many emotions, and so many perspectives. The script just drew me in.”

Indeed, Zimmerman’s script almost reads like an extended prose poem, and the play has a bare minimum of production notes and directions. One is that a gun never actually appears on stage; another is that the unnamed character should speak directly to audience members, engaging them as she relates the story, but doing so in a controlled manner: “This is a woman who is determined not to be a victim.”

“I think that’s the key,” said Stoodley. “She’s trying to tell this very personal and complicated story about this devastating experience she’s had, and describing it clearly, without over-emoting, makes it that much more powerful.”

Real-life parallels

The journey of “On the Exhale” to the Valley had a bit of serendipity to it. Stoodley explains that she first learned of the play last summer at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where her group was staging two productions, “The Red Guitar” and “Do It Now: Manual Overdrive.” A production of “On the Exhale” also took place at the festival, and though she didn’t get to see it, Stoodley read a copy of the play’s script there and was immediately impressed.

Earlier that summer, she had reconnected with Solomon, a 1999 graduate of Northampton High School who later graduated from Hampshire College and lived away from the Valley for many years before moving back last year. Solomon, who today works as a copywriter and as a coach on leadership issues for businesses, hadn’t been involved in theater for many years but remembers telling Stoodley, in a general kind of way, that she might be interested in returning to the stage.

When Stoodley came back from the Fringe Festival, she shared the “On the Exhale” script with Solomon and asked her if she’d like to perform a staged reading. After reading the script, Solomon was soon on board; she says she’s a little nervous about being on stage by herself but that the work she did with Serious Play 20 years ago gave her a solid base for “tapping into my creativity” and the confidence to take on the role.

Another selling point was the personal connection she felt with the character, who teaches women’s studies at an unnamed college. Like her, Solomon is a single mother with a young child, a five-year-old daughter.

“That definitely resonated,” said Solomon, who now lives in Florence. “And the fact that we’re performing this in an academic, liberal town, that feels similar [to the play] as well.”

Solomon said she once shot a gun at a range, too, like the character relates doing in the play, to see what it felt like. “It’s a really powerful feeling to hold a gun in your hand…. It makes you think ‘How far would I would I go to protect the people I love if it came down to using [a gun]?’ You just hope you would never have to do that.”

“On the Exhale” begins with the woman telling the audience her brush with guns actually began with dreams about being shot by one of her students, a man who was furious about the bad grade she’d given him and had left disturbing post-it notes on a paper he’d submitted (“This is the first time you entertain the possibility that it might not be someone else on the news next time”).

She also relates how she began locking her office door when she was inside and placed a mirror in her office that would give her a view of anyone coming down hallway toward her door.

Then comes news one day that there’s been a shooting — not on campus, but at the town’s elementary school, where her son, Michael, is a student.

Zimmerman in fact wrote “On the Exhale” after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in Dec. 2012, in which 20 students and six adults were murdered. When the woman learns her son is dead, she describes at first becoming numb, resentful rather than grief-stricken: resentful of the sheriff’s explanation of what happened, of squirrels playing in nearby trees, of “anything and everything that allows you to go on living while / your son is dead.”

The script, with its almost poetic and sometimes fragmentary cadence, seems to speak to larger problems, what Solomon sees as “these deep, elemental issues in society” such as depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. “We’re not talking about them, but they’re part of the human condition … They’re part of [gun violence].”

To address those issues, the Sunday performance of “On the Exhale” will be followed by a discussion with Dr. Bindu Kalesan, a clinical epidemiologist and a biostatistician at Boston University School of Medicine. Stoodley describes her as a specialist in the public-health consequences of firearm violence in the U.S. and on the effects of surviving a firearms injury.

“We want theater to be a catalyst for conversation, not just entertainment,” said Stoodley. “Maybe that can help us get to a point where we have less violence.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“On the Exhale” takes place Sunday at 2:30 p.m., followed by a post-play discussion, and on Monday at 7:30 p.m, at the A.P.E. Gallery, 126 Main St., Northampton. Advance tickets are $20 for general admission, $18 for students; order at ontheexhale.brownpapertickets.com (recommended due to limited seating). Sheryl Stoodley can be reached at (413) 588-7439 or seriousplaytheatre@gmail.com.