The relationship between actor and audience member is strikingly vulnerable in a half-full black box; you cannot escape each other’s gaze and attention and wandering thoughts. On the Exhale, produced and performed by 2016 Fringemeister Elizabeth Ann Townsend, expertly leverages this sense of nakedness in its brisk 60 minutes.
An extended monologue, the play at times brought me to tears and at others felt overwrought. Playing a justifiedly-paranoid women’s studies professors whose intrusive obsession – or maybe fantasy – of a shooter targeting her departmental office almost comes true when her young son’s entire elementary school class is murdered in a Sandy Hook-esque school shooting, Townsend’s performance hovers somewhere between beautifully accurate mania and chewing of the non-existent scenery.
On the Exhale’s one character, our un-named narrator, surprised me most in not killing anyone – including herself – by the play’s end. After her son’s violent death, she becomes obsessed with the weapon used to kill him and his classmates, first traveling to the gun store where the shooter bought his weapon just to touch the twin of the assault rifle he used, and quickly deciding to buy it after she discovers in the shop’s shooting range that the only place she can clearly see her son’s face is in the silhouette on her target while she points her rifle toward it.
As her intense grief turns to delusion and obsession, she loses the ability to function without shooting her gun daily and driving it around in the trunk of her car. In the play’s climax, she seems moments away from fully embracing every irony of her life’s situation and using her new sole companion, the semi-automatic rifle, to shoot a state senator who is fervently pro-gun in public yet in private seems to only care enough to bend to his party’s will on the issue.
The entire script is in second person language, which at times, given the widespread use of the same voice and point of view and tone in contemporary humor and satire, veered off from playing as a manic rant to almost seeming like a distasteful joke. Townsend’s performance, while constantly compelling, intense, and even frightening, contributed to the feeling when her vocal inflection – which I’m sure came fairly naturally from the script’s language – seemed to occasionally drip with heavy sarcasm. The line between the pressured speech of a person grappling with delusion and paranoia and mania and that a comic pushing too hard for a joke seems, in On the Exhale, a little too murky.
Ultimately, the play is haunting in its plain and unashamed accuracy of description and revelation. Our narrator seems desperate to convince herself as much as her audience of her justifications and explanations for her sharp dive off the deep end.
On the Exhale, produced and performed by Elizabeth Ann Townsend, was presented as part of the St. Louis Fringe Festival at the Kranzberg Arts Center Black Box theatre, 501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103. Performance times included Friday 8/18 at 8pm; Saturday 8/19 at 6pm; Sunday 8/20 at 1pm; Thursday 8/24 at 8pm; Friday 8/25 at 9:30pm; and Saturday 8/26 at 2:30 pm.