Written in response to the Sandy Hook shooting that took place in 2012, On The Exhale is a reactive piece of theatre that explores the repercussions a shooting has on a single mother. Without anyone to turn to after a tragic incident, Polly Frame’s character seeks to find some closure in the aftermath, finding an unlikely companion in the process.
Director Christopher Haydon has found a strong creative team in Lighting Designer, Colin Grenfell and Sound Designer, Donato Wharton. With long LED tube lights strewn across an otherwise bare stage, the creative team use light and sound to change the mood of Frame’s monologue. The sound of an increasing heart beat paired with gradually brightening white lights excel in building tension as Frame tells her story. They imaginatively mirror Frame’s struggle to stay calm, easing off on the exhale of her breathing.
Disappointingly, the excellence pretty much stops there. That’s not to say that Frame’s grief process and need to find purpose isn’t intriguing – she describes using police records to map out the crime scene in her living room and going to confront who she describes as “the mercenary who dispenses death”. Some of her comments are incendiary and will get a reaction from the audience, yet they aren’t memorable. Still, there is something lacking in her characterisation. However, rather than being a problem on Frame’s part, a lot of On The Exhale’s faults can be traced back to the play’s foundations and its script. Writer Martin Zimmerman’s decision to have his protagonist be a Women’s Studies professor works against Frame. Once this fact is mentioned, very quickly her words feel as though they are a rehearsed speech prepared for a lecture, with Frame’s character trying to keep a room full of audience members-come-students engaged for a whole 70 minutes.
Zimmerman’s vocabulary also inhibits a relationship being formed between Frame and the audience, the use of the words “obsidian” and “insidious” highlighting to us almost gratuitously her educated status. As for Frame’s demeanour, Zimmerman instructs his protagonist in the script, stating that “emotional restraint is key. This is a woman who is determined not to be a victim.” Frame’s interpretation of this leads her to start out almost arrogant in her discussion of her paranoia that a student shooter would one day appear at her college. Even talking about her son, her pride for her son comes across as boastful. When Frame’s hard façade breaks, her pain is there, however it is lessened by the previous struggle to connect with her character.
On The Exhale raises some interesting questions about the USA’s fascination with the “seductive power of weapons”, and the unusual places people can find some form of release. Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s writing too often fails to hit the mark, and Frame’s character is left, once again, the victim.