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Actors Co-op presents a play about school shootings

by Lisa Slade

The Actors Co-op's decision to perform the play Landscape with Stick Figures was unrelated to the Virginia Tech tragedy that occurred recently. The latest massacre leaves the play, which would have been properly reflective and contemplative before last week, feeling a bit raw. It's an open wound for everyone right now. But what better time to reflect upon such events?

Landscape with Stick Figures , written by Steven Alan McGaw, portrays a fictional school shooting that occurs in an affluent area of Chicago. Six students, one teacher, and the father of the shooter are killed during the attack. The perpetrator, Ethan Salisbury, is wrestled down by a fellow student, and police are immediately called to the scene. He's taken into police custody, and then the play really begins.

The reactions are complex, and multidimensional. The news reporters sensationalize the story. The principle at the school confronts everyone about their part in the shooting. Ethan's brother blames their mother for what happened. It's hard to condemn them for their reactions, though. They're dealing with their own version of grief. Clearly, there are many stories involved within this one.

It's a fairly large cast, though several actors play multiple parts. Chad Wood, a recent Bearden High graduate, in his first performance at Black Box, is excellent as the disturbed Ethan Salisbury, as he conveys an emptiness in his eyes that is almost frightening. He looks like a vacant box in the scenes after the shooting, and displays a mania beforehand that leaves his sanity in question. Likewise, Julie Page, who plays Ethan's mother, Judy, is superb in her first Black Box performance.

The play is not linear, jumping from the present to the past and back again. There are flashbacks where the audience sees pre-shooting Ethan interacting with his mother, scenes that are quite touching. Then there are flashbacks of Ethan arguing with his father, demonstrating a troubled childhood and a lifetime of misunderstandings.

Throughout the course of play, we come to feel as though we know Ethan, but we also know the wife of the teacher killed by Ethan, Susan McCormick (played by Ashley Shelton), and many others affected by his actions. There is sympathy for both sides as an entire community reels in psychological shock. The question never leaves our minds: Why did he do it?

As it says in the playwright's statement: â“It should be understood at the outset, this is not a play with an answer, or a play about answers. I've come to know and even sort of love my troubled young shooter, Ethan Salisbury, but he always leaves me with questions.â” Along with all the questions, there is anger, fear and blame, as all the characters deal with their own feelings and personal situations.

When a catastrophe like the shooting in the play occurs, things are whittled down to their cores. Situations become black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. The situation is often infinitely more complicated than that, though, and that is part of what Landscape with Stick Figures reminds us.

In the play, Ethan is mistreated by his father, his brother, and is rendered an outcast by the rest of his high school classmates. He has but one close friend, and no one, it seems, who really understands him.

Though his actions are still obviously inexcusable, there are circumstances that led him to what he did. Or so it seems. Mental illness is mentioned as a possible cause. Mark's mom says he seemed angry, and that she saw him in her son's room once, with a gun. Teachers and wrestling coaches remember a withdrawn boy, one that never quite seemed to fit in. Fellow students remember a freak in a trench coat. A former girlfriend remembers a boy who couldn't even drive them to the movies; he didn't have a driver's license.

As the play's defending attorney says in her closing statement, â“We do a disservice to each other when we try to reduce our understanding of our behavior to simple equations.â” It's an interesting, and correct, message, but one we might need a while to comprehend, after the wounds heal. There's no verdict in the play, and the audience never learns what happens to Ethan. There's freedom in that, in having the ability to make your own decision. Was Ethan a bad person, was he mentally ill, or was he just responding to a series of stimuli? It's your call, just as the playwright intended. â“Six years later, I still don't know the verdict or what becomes of Ethan or why, ultimately he did what he did. The question, however, has never left my mind for very long,â” says McGaw.

Who: The Actors Co-op What: Landscape with Stick Figures Where: Black Box Theatre When: Saturday, April 28, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. How Much: $16, $12 with student ID

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