Maryland-based playwright Jennifer Barclay takes on the subject of school shootings in her interesting but faulty new play Ripe Frenzy, running at Synchronicity Theatre through May 6.
The play approaches its timely, heavy topic from a somewhat oblique angle. The high school-aged characters remain almost peripheral, and instead, we focus on a small group of mothers and in particular Zoe (Taylor M. Dooley), who narrates. Chipper, friendly, engaging, if more than a little troubled for reasons that aren’t initially spelled out, Zoe opens by telling us the history of Tavistown, the small town where the action takes place. There’s not much history to tell, the most remarkable thing about the place being the fact that the local high school over the years has set the Guinness World Record for the most productions of Thornton Wilder’s somewhat dusty classic Our Town. Nearly everyone in town, including Zoe and her close friends Felicia (Danye Brown) and Miriam (Megan Cramer), has been in it at some point. As Zoe tells us more about the present-day production — with Felicia and Miriam’s kids in the lead roles and her own son running tech offstage — we slowly gather the sense, in spite of Zoe’s well-practiced denial, that something is deeply wrong.
Our Town famously has a narrator, the Stage Manager, who introduces, guides and comments on the action, and it’s a role that Zoe takes on in a number of ways. She narrates the action of Ripe Frenzy like the Stage Manager of Our Town and similarly calls forth various scenes and characters for the audience to see. And Zoe, we learn, did actually play the Stage Manager of Our Town, the first female student to do so, in her own high school days. As her son and his cohorts approach their own production, she performs the literal job of stage manager (the lowercase, offstage job). The framing device is, exactly as it sounds, clever and intriguing, but also, exactly as it sounds, affected and overly literary. Audiences can’t even be relied on to remember much about Our Town nowadays, so Zoe has to explain a great deal about the play, its plot, its characters, its technique; all of it in the end seems too deliberate and heavily symbolic, as do a number of surreal effects that punctuate the drama.
Zoe and the other characters, like the people of Our Town, can occasionally seem more like representative types and archetypes than truly individual characters. But one of the many strengths of Our Town is that, for all of its devices, there remains something transparent, honest and unmanipulated, almost guileless, about its approach. The same techniques in Ripe Frenzy lose that sense of transparency and simplicity, and though Dooley is an appealing actress, I never felt I was drawing close to the character. Zoe, Felicia and Miriam as archetypal “American Moms” share too much in common with familiar conceptions and popular depictions of American motherhood. They’re devoted to their kids in that slightly harried, exasperated, baffled way that moms tend to be on the Lifetime Network; there’s even a scene in which the mothers bond over a bottle of wine around a campfire, a moment that seems straight from the movie of the week. We hear a lot of stories about cutesy or touching things the kids did as toddlers, and so on.
Still, in spite of its problems, there are a number of effective moments. The overarching presence and eventual appearance of a school shooter is genuinely creepy, and the ending, which projects a scene from Our Town on the back of the stage as troubling events are recounted in front of it, I have to admit was a rich and interesting theatrical moment, even as I sort of rolled my eyes at it.
In the end, there’s something inconclusive and unsatisfying about the work. A play certainly can’t be expected to give us all the answers to an issue as weighty and complex as school shootings. But we’re still left with remarkably few insights or new angles of thought. Mothers love their children, and school shootings are tragic; these are ideas that come across powerfully in the play. But it’s safe to assume that you know them before heading into the theater.