'On the Exhale': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Marin Ireland in 'On the Exhale'
Ireland delivers a superbly restrained performance in this taut, powerful piece.
4/2/2017

Marin Ireland plays a mother devastated by gun violence in Martin Zimmerman's pithy one-person play.

Plays that deal with white-hot social issues often devolve into polemics. But that is fortunately not the case with Martin Zimmerman’s one-person drama starring Marin Ireland as a young mother faced with what has sadly become an all-too- familiar tragedy. Dealing with the issue of gun violence in America in compelling fashion, On the Exhale never feels like it’s preaching to the choir.

In this taut 60-minute monologue, Ireland plays an unnamed college professor living in an America where “concealed carry is the law of the land.” “Thank you, Supreme Court!” she says sarcastically, as she keeps the door of her university office locked even during working hours.

But her fears for her own safety prove misplaced when she suffers the worst fate that can befall a parent. Her young son is killed in an elementary school shooting, with the barbarity of the slaying made evident when the funeral director tells her that a closed casket is the only option.

Emotionally reeling from her loss, she decides to confront the “merchant of death” who sold the perpetrator the assault rifle used in the massacre. She’s surprised to find that, rather than the evil figure she expected, the gun shop proprietor is a courtly older man resembling a “placid grandpa.” She’s even more surprised when she finds herself impulsively buying the same assault rifle after firing a few rounds at the shooting range at the back of the store.

She proves quite adept with the gun, following the shopkeeper’s instructions to breathe deeply and squeeze the trigger “on the exhale.” Naturally, the purchase takes only a few minutes. But it proves fateful when she later encounters a pro-gun state politician and becomes intent on exacting revenge.

Maintaining a relentless tension without lapsing into histrionics or melodrama, On the Exhale makes its points succinctly and intelligently. Ireland, one of New York theater's most invaluable performers, delivers superb work that is all the more affecting for its carefully calibrated restraint. Leigh Silverman’s direction of the piece — performed on a bare stage in the Roundabout’s suitably intimate Black Box Theatre — is similarly understated. And Jen Schriever’s lighting design effectively highlights the emotional points without being too blatant.

Considering its brief running time, the piece might benefit from being paired with a thematically similar one-act curtain-raiser to give the evening more cumulative weight. On the other hand, the bargain ticket price of $25 to see this talented actress at the top of her game makes that suggestion seem like quibbling.

Venue: Roundabout Black Box Theatre, New York
Cast: Marin Ireland
Playwright: Martin Zimmerman
Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designer: Bart Fassbender
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company

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